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Thai authorities hunt tourist town bombers

The kingdom was on edge after 11 small bombs and a series of suspected arson attacks exploded across seven southern provinces Thursday night and Friday morning, killing four locals and wounding more than 30 people. Photograph: (AFP)

AFP Hua Hin, Thailand Aug 13, 2016, 02.49 PM (IST)
Thai authorities today hunted for culprits behind a wave of bombings targeting popular holiday destinations, as businesses braced for the economic fallout from the attacks on the crucial tourism industry.

The kingdom was on edge after 11 small bombs and a series of suspected arson attacks exploded across seven southern provinces Thursday night and Friday morning, killing four locals and wounding more than 30 people - including foreign tourists.

The bombs, most of them detonated in twin blasts, struck key tourism hubs during a long weekend, including the seaside resort town of Hua Hin and the island of Phuket.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but police have ruled out international terrorism and said the campaign was an act of "local sabotage".

They said the motive was still unclear, but stressed the assault was not connected to a simmering insurgency in Thailand's southern tip, as some analysts have suggested.

"I can assure you that this is not a terrorist attack or the expansion of militants from the three southernmost provinces," deputy police commissioner Ponsapat Pongcharoen told reporters.

If the southern Muslim rebels are to blame, it would mark a major expansion of a secessionist campaign that rarely targets foreigners.

It would also be a huge embarrassment to Thailand's coup-installed military government, which has made boosting national security a flagship policy of its regime.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha confirmed today that at least one man had been detained for questioning over a suspected arson attack in Nakhon Si Thammarat province that coincided with the bombings.

But Prayut stressed it was just a preliminary investigation.

"Don't say he was arrested, he is just under investigation by officials and being questioned. Please be calm," he said.

'Confidence will return'

In hardest-hit Hua Hin, a popular beach resort far from the conflict zone that was rocked by four bombs, locals said they were fearful the town's mainstay tourist industry would suffer just ahead of peak season.

"Hua Hin has never had a problem like this," Nai Amporn, the owner of a beachside restaurant, told AFP.

"I am afraid business will become slow - even this morning, you can see there are fewer people here for breakfast. I think they have all gone home," he added.

Famed for its idyllic islands and Buddhist temples, Thailand is a tourism powerhouse and was hoping for a record 32 million visitors this year.

The sector accounts for at least 10 percent of Thailand's economy, which the military government has struggled to invigorate since its 2014 power grab.

"The confidence in tourism will return," tourism minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said today, adding that the industry is still aiming for a target revenue of $69 billion in 2016.

An August 2015 bombing at a Bangkok shrine that killed 20 people - mostly tourists - was followed by a sudden drop in visitors. But it did not stop the kingdom from welcoming a record high of nearly 30 million travellers that year.

'Rebels capable'

The recent bombings were aimed at striking the vital tourism sector without causing extensive carnage, said Anthony Davis, a security analyst at IHS Jane's.

"This will have a significant impact on the tourist season in the south this year and into early 2017, using tactics that were clearly intended not to cause mass casualties," he told AFP.

He said southern insurgents were the only domestic group capable of carrying out the coordinated assault.

"They have the operational infrastructure and the manpower. Arguably, extending the campaign in a striking manner was only a matter of time," he told AFP, adding that the junta's initial efforts to negotiate with the rebels had reached an impasse.

Davis said it was unlikely the junta's other political foes - supporters of the ousted government loyal to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra - were responsible for the attack, as they have been under close military surveillance since the coup.

The bombings came less than a week after the junta's draft of a new charter was approved in a referendum.

The poll was held in in a repressive climate, with criticism of the document banned under a harsh anti-campaigning law.

Only the north and northeast - strongholds of the ousted government - and the three insurgent-torn provinces rejected the charter.

The southern rebellion, waged by Muslim militants seeking greater autonomy from the Buddhist-majority state, has killed more than 6,500 people since it erupted in 2004.

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