April 01, 2012 || Hat Yai, Thailand :: Suspected Muslim insurgents staged the most deadly coordinated attacks in years in Thailand’s restive south, killing 14 people and injuring 340 on Saturday (31 March 2012) with car bombs that targeted shoppers and a high-rise hotel frequented by foreign tourists.
A first batch of explosives planted inside a parked pickup truck ripped through an area of restaurants and shops in a busy area of Yala city, a commercial hub of Thailand’s southern provinces, district police chief Col. Kritsada Kaewchandee said.
About 20 minutes later, just as onlookers gathered at the blast site, a second car bomb exploded, causing the majority of casualties. Eleven people were killed and 110 wounded.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala since an Islamist insurgency flared in January 2004.
“This is the worst attack in the past few years,” said Col. Pramote Promin, deputy spokesman of a regional security agency.
“The suspected insurgents were targeting people’s lives,” he said. They chose “a bustling commercial area, so they wanted to harm people.”
Most attacks are small bombings or drive-by shootings that target soldiers, police and symbols of authority, but suspected insurgents have also staged large attacks in commercial areas.
A blast also occurred on Saturday at a high-rise hotel in the city of Hat Yai, in the nearby province of Songkhla. Officials had initially attributed that blast to a gas leak, saying it was unrelated to the attacks blamed on insurgents. But after inspecting the hotel’s underground parking lot, authorities found a severely damaged sedan and a hole created by the explosion’s impact.
The midday explosion at the 405-room Lee Gardens Plaza Hotel, where many Malaysian and Singaporean tourists spend their weekends, killed three people and caused about 230 injuries, mostly from smoke inhalation, said a police officer, Lt. Puwadon Wiriyawarangkun.
Regional police chief Lt. Gen. Jakthip Chaijinda said the Hat Yai incident “is likely related to what happened in Yala and might have been plotted by the same group of insurgents.”
The police said the blast at the underground level of the hotel ripped the building’s cooking gas pipeline, causing a fire that sent smoke spiraling into the upper floors and trapping many people in their rooms until rescuers came. One of the fatalities was identified as a Malaysian tourist.
A McDonald’s restaurant on the hotel’s ground floor appeared to have suffered heavy damage from the blast.
The hotel was also targeted in 2006, when four people were killed by six bombs planted on Hat Yai’s main street. Hat Yai and the rest of Songkhla province have generally been spared the violence that has wracked Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.
The insurgents have made no public pronouncements 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.
Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani are the only Muslim-dominated provinces in the predominantly Buddhist nation of Thailand.
Muslims in the area have long complained of discrimination by the central government.