PATTANI • Thailand's military said yesterday that it was hunting four suspects over a large car bomb, which wounded more than 60 people outside a supermarket in the insurgency-plagued south.
The Muslim-majority border region has seethed with violence for over a decade as ethnic Malay insurgents battle the Buddhist-majority state for more autonomy. Bombings and shootings are a weekly occurrence.
But on Tuesday, two bombs - a small device followed by a much larger car bomb - went off outside a busy supermarket in the town of Pattani, the largest attack for months on a civilian target in the south. Pictures of the incidents showed some of the victims were Malay Muslims.
Colonel Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for the southern army, said the investigation was focused on two people who allegedly rode up on a motorbike to drop off the first device, and two others who left the much bigger car bomb outside the supermarket.
"Please give us some time; we hope to arrest them very soon," he said, adding that the perpetrators intended to "kill en masse and secondly to destroy the economy".
The authorities said over 60 people were wounded in the blast, some of them seriously, with 20 victims still in hospital yesterday.
Ethnic Malay militants have been fighting the military in Thailand's three southernmost regions since 2004, after dozens of civilians died in army custody. Some 6,800 people have since died in the conflict, most of them civilians, with both sides accused of rights abuses.
Rights groups and Unicef - the United Nations' children's agency - condemned Tuesday's attack as one clearly aimed at killing or maiming large numbers of civilians.
Amnesty yesterday described the blast as "a horrific and deliberate attack on civilians" that showed "a callous disregard for human life".
Mr Don Pathan, an expert on the southern insurgency, described Tuesday's blast as "very strange" because it so clearly targeted civilians, many of whom were local Muslims. If it was the militants, he told AFP, it would be "like shooting yourself in the foot".
The region was annexed by Thailand more than a century ago and has long simmered with resentment over Bangkok's push to assimilate the ethnically and linguistically distinct locals. The shadowy network of militants behind the violence almost never claims its attacks and rarely talks to the media.
Soldiers, police and local officials are frequent victims of the attacks, but the militants are also known to pursue soft civilian targets, including teachers and monks.
Meanwhile, a decision by security guards to seal off the supermarket after a small blast saved many lives, the Bangkok Post reported yesterday.Security guards had sealed off the area to prevent people from entering and leaving the building after the suspicious vehicle was detected, the newspaper report said.