Thailand’s military rulers are facing up to the deadliest attack in the capital in recent memory after at least 19 people were killed in a bomb blast that the government blamed on forces seeking to destroy its tourist economy.
Body parts and mangled scooters were scattered across a busy intersection in central Bangkok after the improvised device went off at about 7pm local time (noon GMT) at the Erawan Hindu shrine.
Bangkok explosion witness: ‘There was fire, shrapnel and so much smoke’
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the deadly assault in which more than 123 people were injured is a major test for the military-run administration, which ousted the elected government in May 2014. The military is fighting a Muslim insurgency in the south but militants rarely launch attacks of this scale on the capital.
“The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district,” the defence minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, told Reuters.
“We still don’t know for sure who did this and why,” he later told reporters. “We are not sure if it is politically motivated, but they aim to harm our economy and we will hunt them down.”
“It was a pipe bomb,” the national police chief, Somyot Poompanmoung, said, adding that the toll could climb to nearer 30. “It was placed inside the Erawan shrine.” CCTV footage captured a cloud of fire, and showed Thai people and a foreign man running away.
“Those who have planted this bomb are cruel. They aim to kill because everyone knows that at 7pm the shrine is crowded with Thais and foreigners,” Somyot said. “Planting a bomb there means they want to see a lot of dead people.”
Bangkok has been mostly calm since the coup last year but anger from the opposition has intensified after the junta said it may not hold elections until 2017. The last major bombing in Bangkok occurred on New Year’s Eve at the end of 2006, when three people were killed in a series of explosions. Responsibility was never claimed.
Police and the fire brigade cordoned off the entire intersection with tape and human barriers. Four major roads and the above-ground metro rail converge here, and high-rise hotels and malls line the street. Shards of glass lay on the road and a sign from the nearby Alexander McQueen shop had letters missing from the impact of the blast.
Hundreds of onlookers, mostly from the security services but also journalists and some tourists, stood at the edge of the tape. When thunder clapped in the clouds above, everyone jumped.
The UK Foreign Office said people should “monitor media and take extra care” after the explosion. It later released a statement saying: “We are in contact with local authorities and urgently seeking further information following reports of an explosion in Bangkok.”
At the multistorey Grand Hyatt hotel, which is right next to the shrine, locals and tourists waited for the situation to calm down, looking at photos of the wreckage on social media as they sat only metres away.
Thanapon Peng, a 25-year-old who works in marketing, passed the site on a motorbike taxi moments after the blast. “I saw glass. I saw some organs of people on the road. I don’t know how many people there were,” he told the Guardian. “I heard that about 80 people are wounded but we don’t know how many died.”
He was told by hotel staff to wait inside, where a musician continued to play on the mezzanine grand piano and staff tried to help people. Outside, a single empty stretcher lay where taxis drop off guests.
There were suggestions in the aftermath that a second and third bomb had been hidden in the capital. Police with torches looked under bushes and walked the grounds of the nearby police station in an apparent search for other devices.
Tamar Johnson, 20, a British tourist staying in the nearby Lebua hotel, said she and her sister were at the rooftop bar when they heard a huge explosion. “At first we thought it was just thunder because there’s been electrical storms all day so we didn’t think much of it,” she told Caters News Agency.
“Then my mum phoned me from the hotel. She was shouting about a bomb so we sprinted back to our hotel. It was chaos – people were running around and there were police and ambulances everywhere.”
“Now we’re on the 23rd floor and we’re all together waiting for it to calm down. It’s really scary. The hotel staff are looking after us but they’ve closed the doors and told us not to leave until we hear anything else.”
Medics and police formed a line at the large intersection and walked slowly forward, looking for any debris from the blast. A volunteer medic said: “Some people died here, some people died at hospital.”
A full death toll would come later, medics said, as many of the critically wounded had been sent to different hospitals.
The explosion was large enough to throw a metre-wide chunk of metal to a third-floor balcony on the other side of the street, about 50 metres away. Human flesh lay on the road and medics were picking it up two hours after the blast.
The shrine is a major attraction for visitors from Asia and for Thai people. Dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma, it is also popular among Thailand’s Buddhist and Chinese tourists.
Nearby tailors sell suits to tourists and diplomats, and the road straddles the capital’s main metro line.
Several ambulances rushed along the road away from the shrine to hospitals. Most of the wounded were taken to a hospital very close to the blast site and a long line of ambulances waited outside. Empty wheelchairs and stretchers stood at the entrance to the emergency care unit, where people were packed into the reception.
In the lobby, police said foreigners who speak Thai had arrived to volunteer to help translate for wounded tourists. Hospitals were calling for Chinese translators and many had arrived and registered their mobile phone numbers with the police, to be called on later.
Tony Chan, a Chinese physical education teacher, said he was in Bangkok on a three-week trip and came to the hospital to see if he could do something for the wounded. “I heard a very loud sound. I thought it was thunder. Later I saw the news so I came to see if I could provide some help,” he said.
The Nation television channel reported that the government would set up a “war room” to coordinate a response. Some were pointing fingers at Muslim separatists who have waged a long campaign in Thailand’s south, but the country has also seen violent confrontations between political groups in the capital. Two pipe bombs exploded in the same district in February but did not cause significant damage.
The Thai government posted a statement late on Monday evening, attributed to Maj Gen Werachon Sukhondhapatak, saying preliminary investigations had revealed that an IED was used to cause the explosion.
“As for possible motivations as to who may have caused this incident, it is too early to speculate which group may have been responsible for this crime but authorities are following possible leads.”
February: Two small bombs explode near a popular shopping mall in downtown Bangkok. One man is injured but there are no deaths.
18 January: One protester dies after a bomb attack at an opposition march in Bangkok. Authorities and demonstrators blame each other for the blast, which was apparently caused by a grenade-type device thrown from a nearby building.
19 January: Twin blasts by unknown attackers at an anti-government protest in central Bangkok leave 28 injured.
May: A homemade bomb hidden near rubbish bins in a busy suburban Bangkok shopping area explodes, injuring seven people.
January: Police arrest five men armed with explosives after a tipoff that bomb attacks were planned near the seat of government in Bangkok.
June: Two people are injured in a blast at a political protest by Thailand’s “Yellow Shirt” demonstrators near Government House.
7 December: A makeshift explosive device is found and defused near the government lottery office with authorities saying the perpetrators wanted to “challenge the government”.
April: Five grenade blasts hit Bangkok, targeting hundreds of pro-government supporters in attacks that leave one dead and scores wounded, including foreigners. The grenade blasts come after a failed attempt by authorities to disperse the anti-government “Red Shirts”, sparking clashes that left 25 people dead and more than 800 injured in the worst civil unrest in almost two decades.
July: The government says a bomb that killed one at a bus stop in central Bangkok was designed to create disorder.
September: Bangkok put on high alert after a series of grenade blasts. Thousands of police and soldiers are mobilised for extra security.
October: A blast at an apartment complex kills four, with the government blaming the incident on the Red Shirts who deny any involvement and accuse the authorities of a plot to justify tougher security powers.
November: A grenade is thrown onto a minibus killing one. It was not clear if it was politically motivated.
Three killed and around 40 injured in a volley of eight explosions over the New Year period.