Hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders carried candles and wiped away tears at a dawn prayer service Saturday to honor those who died building the "Death Railway" of World War II.

They were joined by Australian Prime Minister John Howard on the anniversary of Anzac Day - named for those who lost their lives fighting for the Australian New Zealand Army Corps.Howard, on an official three-day visit, declared Hellfire Pass in western Thailand sacred to Australians and said he was "deeply moved" by the site.

The crowd laid wreaths at the graves of some of the 2,800 Anzacs who perished here as prisoners of war.

More than 100,000 Asian prisoners and thousands of Allied prisoners died alongside the Anzacs build-ing the railway for the Japanese military.

"Their story of sacrifice and suffering, of constancy and compassion, illuminates the very essence of the Anzac spirit," Howard said. "For, of all our heroes, they were armed with human virtue alone and their victory was over the darkest recesses of the human heart."

Hellfire Pass was the most difficult section of the railway to build because it involved cutting 80-yard holes into rock and back-breaking construction of a dozen flimsy bridges through rugged terrain and disease-infested jungle.

In the first of several ceremonies, Howard opened a museum Fri-day at the pass, about 50 miles northwest of the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai.

Both spots were landmarks on the 260-mile route the Japanese army cut through the Burmese jungle by using the forced labor.

The prisoners died of starvation, disease, physical exhaustion or murder at the hands of guards whose brutality increased with pressure to finish the line.

Their suffering was immortalized in the film "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Some 1 million tourists a year visit the bridge.

Australian soldiers dubbed the area Hellfire Pass because, viewed from above at night as prisoners worked by candlelight, the rock cutting looked like "the jaws of hell."

Among those making the pilgrimage to the site were several former prisoners and members of their families.