Sunday 21 January 2018

Thai police closing in on suspects after bombs hit tourist spots

Thai police patrol the area near the Erawan Shrine, the site of a bombing in August 2015, in the centre of Bangkok. Photo: Getty
Thai police patrol the area near the Erawan Shrine, the site of a bombing in August 2015, in the centre of Bangkok. Photo: Getty

Natnicha Chuwiruch

Police in Thailand said yesterday that they were hoping to identify suspects over the next couple of days in a series of bombing and arson attacks that struck several tourist towns, killing four people and wounding dozens, including 11 foreigners.

The attacks, which hit last Thursday and Friday, came days after a referendum was held in which Thais approved a new constitution that critics say will bolster the power of the military, which has ruled the country since a May 2014 coup, for years to come.

Thai authorities have suggested there were political motives behind the violence, but named no suspects. No one has claimed responsibility for any of the 11 bombings.

"We hope we may have some suspects today or tomorrow," Police Gen Pongsapat Pongcharoen said. He did not elaborate, but said that international militant groups were not believed to be responsible.

The violence appeared aimed at dealing a blow to Thailand's tourism industry, which brings in crucial income to the government.

One small bomb exploded on a beach in the popular Patong area of Phuket island, and four others rattled the seaside resort city of Hua Hin, prompting businesses to shut their doors and streets to empty. The wounded foreigners included nationals of Austria, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The four who were killed were Thais.

The fatalities came from bombs in Hua Hin, 200km south of Bangkok, and the cities of Surat Thani and Trang, farther south. All the affected destinations - which also included Phang Nga and Krabi, as well as Phuket - are popular with foreign and Thai tourists.

Mr Pongsapat said the perpetrators are believed to belong to the same networks and were still inside the country.

It was also reported that police in Nakhon Si Thammarat had arrested a 67-year-old man who is suspected of being responsible for a fire at a supermarket in the southern city that authorities had listed in the series of attacks. Police said they found evidence at his home and in electronic devices they had confiscated that he was involved in an active political movement against the government. But they failed to explicitly link him to the other attacks.

While police have strongly hinted that opponents of the military government that seized power in the 2014 coup may have been behind the attacks, they also acknowledged signs that Muslim separatists from the south could have had a hand in the violence.

Royal Thai Police Col Krisana Patanacharoen said the bombings followed "a similar pattern used in the southern parts of the country" - a reference to a low-level insurgency in the largely Islamic south that has ground on for a decade and killed 5,000 people.

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

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has issued a warning to reporters. "Don't go starting a witch hunt yet as we must make our home as peaceful as possible," he said.

Sunday Independent

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