BANGKOK (Reuters) – Prisoners set fire to the canteen of jail in northeastern Thailand and several inmates escaped during a riot on Sunday that was sparked by rumors of a coronavirus outbreak, a senior justice ministry official told Reuters.

News reports showed large plumes of smoke rising above the prison in Buriram province, which holds about 2,000 inmates, both male and female.

“A small group of prisoners received a lifetime sentences earlier this week so they spread the rumor that the facility is unsafe for COVID-19,” the official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said.

“A hundred prisoners joined them in staging the riot.”

The Thai government has stopped all prison visits since March 18 in a bid to stop the coronavirus spreading across the country’s overcrowded correctional facilities.

Police officers were deployed to contain the situation, including pursuing prisoners who escaped in the chaos, police deputy spokesman Krisana Pattanacharoen told Reuters.

Restrictions on movement have been imposed in several Thai provinces as the total number of coronavirus cases reached 1,388, with 143 new cases reported on Sunday.

Thailand also reported one new coronavirus death, bringing the total there to seven.

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Juarawee Kittisilpa; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Catherine Evans)