Thousands of protesters, including monks, have been executed and their bodies dumped in Burma's jungle, a British newspaper reports.

Citing a former intelligence officer for the country's ruling junta, the Daily Mail reported late Monday that security forces were ordered to take part in a massacre of the revered monks.

"Many more people have been killed in recent days than you've heard about. The bodies can be counted in several thousand," Hla Win, a senior official who defected, told the newspaper from his border hideout as he fled to Thailand.

The junta, however,has confirmed only 10 deaths so far.

Win told the newspaper he fled with his sonafter he heard of the executions.

"They were to be killed and their bodies dumped deep inside the jungle. I refused to participate in this," he told the Daily Mail.

A picture accompanying the article shows a saffron robed body lying face down in a river, with the caption identifying it as an executed Buddhist monk.

Human rights groups are still trying to learn more about the severity of last week's crackdown. Some groups estimate as many as 1,500 people have alsobeen jailed, including up to 1,000 monks.

Crackdown's severity unknown

According to one Asian diplomat, monks are paying a heavy price for their leadership in the protests.

All the arrested monks have been defrocked — stripped of their highly revered status and made to wear civilian clothes, he said. Some of them are likely to face long jail terms, the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

It has been difficult to get accurate information out of the country. Military rulers have restricted internet access and mobile phone service.

Soldiers have gone to hotels in search of foreign journalists operating without permission.

At least four local journalists have been arrested and others have been detained or harassed, Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association said in a statement.

Security forces used 'utmost restraint'

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Burma's foreign minister defended the junta's actions, saying security forces exercised the "utmost restraint" and only took action against protesters when the "mob became unruly and provocative."

"Normalcy has now returned in Myanmar," said U Nyan Win.

The minister accused "political opportunists" of fuelling protests to create a showdown in the country that they could benefit from.

"The situation would not have deteriorated, had the initial protest of a small group of activists against the rise in fuel prices not been exploited by political opportunists," Nyan Win said.

"They sought to turn the situation into a political showdown aided and abetted by some powerful countries," he added, without naming countries.

He alsourged the international community to refrain from taking measures that will worsen the situation in the impoverished southeast Asian country, also known as Myanmar.

Public anger, which ignited Aug. 19 after the government hiked fuel prices, turned into mass protests against 45 years of military dictatorship when Buddhist monks joined in.

Soldiers responded last week by opening fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing at least 10 people by the government's account.

Nyan Win said he was "greatly disturbed"by media campaigns accusing his government of human rights violations and countries imposing sanctions on Burma, calling the actions "counterproductive" and bound to worsen poverty.

Burmese general to meet UN envoy

Also Monday, Burma said its top general has finally agreed to meet with the United Nations special envoy, who hopes to deliver a stern message from the international community over the junta's crackdown on recent protests.

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Burmese junta leader Sr. Gen Than Shwe, seen here on March 27 in Rangoon, will meet Tuesday with UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari. ((David Longstreath/Associated Press))

Ibrahim Gambari has travelled to northern Burmatwice since arriving in the country only to be rebuffed at the isolated jungle headquarters of the military regime.

But on Monday, the government issued a statement saying Senior Gen. Than Shwe will meet Tuesday with Gambari.

On Sunday, Gambari met Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a key symbol in the country's pro-democracy movement, which has been quelled by a huge deployment of soldiers in at least two major cities.

The meeting took place at a state guest house in Rangoon, the country's commercial centre and former capital. Suu Kyi was taken there from the residence where she has been held under house arrest.

Diplomats said the meeting lasted about 90 minutes and can be viewed as something of a concession by Burma's military rulers.

However, the military's occupation of Rangoon has successfully stifled any demonstrations for the past two days, and observers say the regime may already feel it has won.

"Unfortunately, the military have regained the momentum now and it's going to be difficult. There'd have to be a major new dimension emerge for the situation to alter again," Sajjan M. Gohel, director of international security at the London-based Asia Pacific Foundation, told CBC News.

On the streets Monday, troops removed road blocks and appeared to ease their stranglehold onRangoon following the largest protests in two decades.

After days of intimidation that snuffed out the public demonstrations, soldiers and riot police redeployed from the city centre to the outskirts, but were still checking cars and buses and monitoring the city by helicopter.

Traffic was still light and most shops remained closed. Some monks were allowed to leave monasteries to collect food donations, watched by soldiers lounging under trees.

"It's outwardly quite normal at the moment. The traffic seems to be flowing, there's a lot of military tucked away in less visible locations," British Ambassador Mark Canning told the Associated Press. "They've obviously for the moment squeezed things off the streets."

With files from the Associated Press