Islamist car bombs kill 11 in Thailand
SUSPECTED Muslim insurgents staged the most deadly attack in years in the south of Thailand yesterday, killing 11 people and wounding 110 with car bombs that targeted Saturday shoppers just before lunchtime.
A first batch of explosives planted inside a pick-up truck parked on a busy street ripped through an area of restaurants and shops in the business district of Yala city, a commercial hub for Thailand’s southern provinces, which have seen an increase in violence in recent years.
About 20 minutes later, just as onlookers gathered at the blast site, a second car bomb exploded. This caused most of the casualties.
“This is the worst attack in the past few years,” said Colonel Pramote Promin, deputy spokesman of the regional security agency. “The suspected insurgents were targeting people’s lives. They [chose] a bustling, commercial area. They wanted to harm people.”
More than 5,000 people have been killed in Thailand’s three southern-most provinces – Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala – since an Islamist insurgency first flared in January 2004.
Most attacks are small-scale bombings or drive-by shootings that target soldiers, police and other state officials, but suspected insurgents have also staged large attacks in business districts. However, they do not often target civilians; this latest attack marks a possible shift in tactics used to engender fear and panic.
In October last year, suspected Islamist militants staged co-ordinated attacks at more than 30 locations across Yala city, killing three people and injuring more than 50, some seriously.
A month earlier, three separate car bombs were detonated in a busy section of Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province, killing four people and leaving more than 60 injured.
Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani are the only Muslim-dominated provinces in the predominantly Buddhist country of Thailand, which is mostly viewed as peaceful and is a huge tourist destination in South-east Asia. However, Muslims have long complained of discrimination by the central government based in the capital, Bangkok.
The insurgents have made no public pronouncements on the reasons for their actions but are thought to be fighting for an independent Muslim state. The area used to be an Islamic sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand in the early 20th century.
Thai authorities have imposed a state of emergency since 2005 that gives security forces special powers to arrest and detain suspects in the three Muslim provinces. But the decree and a massive security presence have failed to curb the violence and little is known about the militants or their goals, creating yet more fear amongst the general population.
Yesterday’s blasts occurred on a road that was previously heavily guarded with checkpoints and closed to traffic to ensure safety. But the security was lifted in 2011 after local shopowners said the measures were damaging their businesses.
Initial accounts of the attack said there were three blasts with explosives planted in cars and motorcycles but officials later corrected this account.
One of the reported blasts in fact occurred at a high-rise hotel in the city of Hat Yai, in the nearby province of Songkhla, and was later attributed to a gas leak. Officials confirmed it was unrelated to the attacks launched by Muslim insurgents.
The midday explosion at the 405-room Lee Gardens Hotel killed three people and caused about 230 injuries, mostly from smoke inhalation, said police lieutenant Puwadon Wiriyawarangkun.
The blast is believed to have started in a basement-level restaurant of the hotel, causing a fire that sent smoke spiralling into the upper floors and trapping many people in their rooms until rescuers came. One of the fatalities was identified as a Malaysian tourist.
The Muslim-dominated Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces, a region that was part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until annexed by Thailand in 1909, has been plagued by almost daily bombings and shootings ever since the secretive, decades-old separatist rebellion resurfaced in January 2004.
The military has made little progress in quelling the unrest. When Thailand’s last prime minister, and current opposition leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, assumed the premiership in 2008 he pledged to find a political solution to the separatist movement, however little progress has been made. Current premier Yingluck Shinawatra has also failed to find a solution as attacks have continued to escalate.