Sunday 25 September 2016

Thai police hunt suspects after bombs hit tourist sites

Published 13/08/2016 | 05:06

Andrea Tazzioli, 51, from Italy, recovers in San Paulo Hospital in Hua Hin (AP)
Andrea Tazzioli, 51, from Italy, recovers in San Paulo Hospital in Hua Hin (AP)

Thais and tourists have headed warily into the main part of a big holiday weekend as authorities hunted for suspects and a motive behind a series of blasts that struck resort towns across the south in some of the worst violence since a military coup two years ago.

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Police said at least four people were killed and dozens wounded, including 11 foreigners.

It was not clear who was behind the attacks on Thursday and Friday - the birthday of Thailand's Queen Sirikit - which followed a successful referendum held last weekend on a new constitution that critics say will bolster the military's power for years to come. But the violence appeared aimed at undermining the country's tourism industry, which provides vital income to the government.

One small bomb exploded on a beach in Patong on the island of Phuket and four others rattled the seaside resort city of Hua Hin, prompting businesses to shut their doors, streets to empty and anxious tourists to huddle inside their hotels.

Police said firebombs also triggered blazes at markets and shops in six places, including Phuket, Trang, Surat Thani, Phang Nga and a souvenir shop in the tourist town of Ao Nang, Krabi, a seaside province known for its stunning limestone cliffs.

On Saturday, General Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a deputy national police chief, said "we hope we may have some suspects today or tomorrow". He did not elaborate, but said police were gathering evidence and international militant groups were not believed to be behind the attacks.

Foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, issued warned travellers to use caution and avoid affected areas.

In a televised address prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the attacks "struck at the hearts of all Thai people".

Colonel Krisana Patanacharoen of the Royal Thai Police said it was "too early to conclude" who was behind the attacks. But he said the bombings followed "a similar pattern used in the southern parts of the country" - a reference to a low-level uprising in the country's Islamic south that has ground on for more than a decade and killed more than 5,000 people.

Southern militants fighting for greater autonomy have carried out sophisticated, co-ordinated attacks before, but most have hit three provinces in the far south that were not among those targeted this week.

The violence occurred just ahead of the first anniversary of the August 17 bombing of Bangkok's Erawan Shrine, which left 20 dead and injured more than 120 others.

Thai authorities said that bombing was revenge by a people-smuggling gang whose activities were disrupted by a crackdown, but analysts suspect it might have been the work of Uighur separatists angry that Thailand forcibly repatriated more than 100 Uighurs to China.

The latest troubles began on Thursday afternoon when a bomb exploded in the southern province of Trang - an area full of beautiful beaches and tourist islands - killing one person and injuring six.

On Thursday night, attackers in Hua Hin hid bombs on a busy street filled with bars and restaurants. One Thai woman was killed and about 20 people were wounded, 11 of them foreigners.

Police said four of the injured tourists were from Germany, two from Italy and one from Austria. The Netherlands said four of its citizens were also wounded.

"No political aim justifies violence and attacks on innocent people," German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

The bombs were hidden inside two pot plants and were detonated by remote control about half an hour apart, said General Sithichai Srisopacharoenrath, the police superintendent in Hua Hin. He said a Samsung mobile phone had been recovered that they believed was used to detonate at least one of the bombs.

Separate blasts were reported elsewhere in the south on Friday morning. One exploded on popular Loma Beach in Phuket city's Patong district, injuring one person. Two more detonated half an hour apart in front of two police stations in Surat Thani, killing one and wounding three. And two bombs exploded outside a market in Phang Nga, damaging two vehicles but causing no casualties.

In Hua Hin, 51-year-old Italian Andrea Tazzioli said he "saw light, white light" after the second of Thursday night's explosions, and immediately felt pain in his shoulder "like big fire".

Speaking later at a hospital, he said he fell down and saw people "screaming, the glass broken, table broken, confusion".

Tour guide Niels Seeberg came across the first blast site earlier in the night and thought it might be a gas explosion so he and his friends continued to a venue where a live band was playing.

"We were standing at the very back of the bar and watching the music. Suddenly there was a big blast, a very big blast, and I could feel the pressure on my eardrums," he said.

"The music stopped, everything stopped, everyone froze."

Soon the bar filled with panicked people running from the blast site, some smeared in blood.

"They didn't scream. They were more like numb," he said. "People were shocked, they couldn't say anything."

Thailand has been plagued by political violence, including several bombings, since the populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 military coup after demonstrations accused him of corruption, abuse of power and insulting King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Mr Thaksin's removal set off sometimes bloody battles for power between his supporters and opponents, who include the military. The government of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister in 2011, was toppled in the country's last coup in 2014.

On Sunday Thai voters approved a referendum on a new constitution that is supposed to lead to an election next year. But critics say it is undemocratic and is fashioned to keep the military in control for at least five more years even if a free election is held.

AP

Press Association

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