Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Bangkok bombing: Thailand police captures main suspect'

Thai police have arrested a main suspect in the bomb attack on the capital last month that killed 20 people, the prime minister has announced.

Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters the man was arrested on the Thai crossing with Cambodia. “It’s true. He has been arrested at Sa Kaeo checkpoint,” the leader of the junta said during an afternoon press conference on Tuesday.

It was the second arrest announced by authorities relating to the attack on the Erawan shrine in Bangkok on 17 August, the most deadly peacetime bombing in the country’s history.

Police on Saturday detained another foreigner who they said was found with bomb-making materials in his apartment and was linked to a people-smuggling gang. However, he was not believed to be the person who was captured on security cameras on the night of the attack dropping off a black bag at the shrine.

When Prayuth was asked if the second foreigner arrested was the man shown in grainy footage with dark, shaggy hair and a yellow T-shirt on the night of the blast, he said: “We are interrogating. He is a main suspect and a foreigner.”

He asked reporters not to speculate about the arrested man and his potential motives. “Don’t say just yet it’s about this and that. It could affect international affairs,” he said. “We have to do a lot of tests, fingerprints. If he is the guy, he is the guy.”

Thai police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri said later that the man looked similar to the suspected bomber but also warned against speculation before tests could be completed.

Security forces have widened their search for suspects following the arrests. They have released warrants for a 26-year-old Thai Muslim woman called Wanna Suansan and a man in his 40s. On Tuesday, fresh warrants were issued for three Turkish men.

Thai television aired a photo of police detaining a man who was wearing a grey sweatshirt and beige trousers. Large aviator-style sunglasses and a cap hid his face.

The explosion at the Hindu temple in central Bangkok – an attraction popular with Chinese Buddhist tourists as well as Thais – also left more than 120 people injured. Many of the casualties were foreigners, throwing an international spotlight on the Thai police’s handling of the case.

The authorities have been criticised for releasing contradictory information in the days after the attack, speculating about differing motives and for rejecting offers of help from international investigators.

The military junta, which took power in a coup in May 2014 after months of violent protests, has vowed to bring stability to the country and is looking to solve the case promptly, wary of the effects the uncertainty may have on its vital tourism industry.

The prime suspect, whose face has appeared in a detailed electronic sketch, shows a thin man with a light complexion, wearing black-rimmed glasses. But he could have been wearing a disguise and the CCTV footage is of low quality.

The sketch has been widely circulated inThailand, including on roadside billboards. Immigration officers at Bangkok’s international airport also have printouts of the digital sketch. Some show him without glasses, wearing a hat or with no hair.

Thai media shared a photo on Tuesday of a Chinese passport they said belonged to the man arrested at the Cambodian border. It showed a similar-looking man to the person in the electronic sketch. The passport showed he was born in 1989 and came from China’s western Xinjiang region.

Xinjiang is home to ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in western China. There has been speculation that Uighur militants were behind the bombing afterThailand forcibly returned 109 Uighurs to China in July. The deportations angered the Uighur community and caused an outcry from human rights groups and the UN, who said they could face persecution and abuse.

Many Uighurs have fled to south-east Asia in the hope of then travelling to Turkey, which has strong cultural links to the group and has sheltered them for decades.

Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said he remained sceptical about a link to the situation in Xinjiang. “But if it does turn out to be the case, it certainly would be quite a worrying escalation from a Chinese perspective,” he said.

“If it turns out to be this, this is the first time we have seen such a blunt attack on Chinese nationals abroad by people who are angry about what is happening in Xinjiang.”

He said Beijing would also be likely to crack down further within its own borders – as it did after two deadly attacks on civilians in Kunming and Urumqi in 2014 – and to make it even harder for Uighurs to leave the country by fleeing to other countries in the region, including Thailand.

Thavornsiri said on Sunday that authorities believed the first man arrested was part of an organised crime group that sold counterfeit documents to illegal immigrants. Thai police have also said that an attack may have been launched by a people-smuggling gang in response to a crackdown on the trade.

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