At least 56 people including children were injured Tuesday when a pair of car-bombs exploded outside a department store in Thailand’s insurgency-wracked Deep South, officials said.
Although no fatalities were reported in the attack that left two victims severely injured, the bombings in and around the parking lot at the Big C store in the town of Pattani were the most devastating combined blasts in Thailand’s southern border region this year.
“Fifty-six people were injured … At least 33 people, mostly with shrapnel wounds, remain hospitalized,” Wichienchok Phetpakdee, a senior official with the Southern Border Province Administration Center, the region’s governing agency, told a news conference.
Officials said it was too early to determine whether separatist insurgents from the Muslim-dominated and Malay-speaking Deep South were responsible for Tuesday’s attack. But it followed a series of recent deadly attacks believed to have been carried out by hardcore members of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the largest of the southern rebel groups.
Two bombs were used in the latest attack, police said. A small one went off in the parking lot of Big C – a major grocery and retail chain in Thailand – moments before a larger bomb planted in a pickup truck exploded.
“[T]he more powerful, second one exploded later,” Capt. Preecha Prachumchai, the deputy chief investigator of the Pattani police station, told reporters at the scene.
An eyewitness, who requested anonymity, told BenarNews that before the second bomb went off, he saw a driver jump out of a pickup truck that was parked near the store’s entrance.
A video posted by a witness on Twitter showed the second explosion cause a large fireball that sent bystanders running for cover. The blast blew away the store’s front.
Firemen extinguish flames caused by a bomb blast in the parking lot of the Big C department store in Pattani, May 9, 2017. [BenarNews]
‘Callous disregard for human life’
The attack drew condemnation from international organizations.
The Bangkok office of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) deplored the “indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, where children and their families are known to be present.”
“No child’s life should ever be put at risk in this way. This is wholly unacceptable,” the U.N. agency said in a rare statement touching on the Thai Deep South.
Separately, human rights watch Amnesty International called on Thailand’s government to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“The attack on a shopping center in Pattani is a horrific and deliberate attack on civilians, and shows a callous disregard for human life,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “Thailand’s authorities must immediately order an independent and effective investigation.”
In Malaysia, a spokesman for MARA Patani, an umbrella body that has been holding informal peace talks with Thailand’s military government on behalf of various Deep South rebel groups, condemned the attack as well.
MARA spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim said it was “still premature to point fingers at the perpetrators.”
But “whoever they are, inflicting injuries on civilians in a public space is just unacceptable,” he told BenarNews.
Tuesday’s attack brought to 100 the number of people who have been injured in violence in the Deep South that has also claimed the lives of 37 others since the start of the year.
This year’s deadliest attack in the south took place on April 27, when suspected rebels shot dead six Thai army soldiers and tried to mutilate their bodies by setting them on fire during a roadside ambush in Narathiwat province.
That attack took place on the eve of the anniversary of the so-called Krue Se incident in 2004, when 32 suspected insurgents who were holed up inside a mosque in nearby Pattani province were killed in a gun battle with security forces. That incident helped re-ignite a decades-long separatist conflict in the Deep South.
The informal talks between MARA Patani and the government, being brokered by Malaysia, are aimed at setting into motion a formal peace process to end the conflict that has claimed almost 7,000 lives since 2004.
But after the two sides agreed in late February to a framework for setting up a limited ceasefire in one of the districts of the Deep South, BRN issued a statement expressing its opposition to the current peace process. The rebel group demanded that it negotiate directly with the Thai government and that an “impartial” international mediator broker such talks.
Razlan Rashid in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.