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Bangkok shrine reopens to public, hunt continues for prime suspect

The central Bangkok Hindu shrine where an unprecedented bomb blast killed 20 people reopened on Wednesday to the public. Authorities are still on the lookout for a man seen in a grainy security video who they say is the prime suspect in an attack authorities called the worst in Thailand's history.

world Updated: Aug 19, 2015 09:06 IST
Bangkok,Hindu shrine,Bangkok blast
A man prayers near the Erawan Shrine the morning after an explosion in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. A bomb exploded Monday within a central Bangkok shrine that is among the city's most popular tourist spots, killing a number of people and injuring others, police said. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

The central Bangkok Hindu shrine where an unprecedented bomb blast killed 20 people reopened on Wednesday to the public. Authorities are still on the lookout for a man seen in a grainy security video who they say is the prime suspect in an attack authorities called the worst in Thailand's history.

A stream of people arrived at the Erawan Shrine, kneeling in prayer, lighting incense and placing flowers at the site where 36 hours earlier an explosion scattered body parts across one of the capital's busiest intersections. Buddhist monks in saffron robes joined members of the public to chant prayers at the popular Hindu shrine.

Among those who paid respects was an office worker, Nuansupha Sarunsikarin, who expressed shock and sadness over the attack, which no one has claimed responsibility for. Authorities say it came by surprise, with no clear motive.

"I'm depressed for those innocent people who had to pay for something they're not involved with and now have no chance to live their lives," Nuansupha said.

Police said they had no doubt that the man seen in the video wearing a yellow shirt and carrying a large, dark-colored backpack was responsible for the attack. But authorities gave no indication that they were aware of his whereabouts.

"The yellow shirt guy is not just the suspect. He is the bomber," said police spokesman Lt. Gen. Prawut Thavornsiri.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha called the bombing at the shrine, located in an upscale neighborhood of shopping malls and 5-star hotels, "the worst incident that has ever happened in Thailand." More than 120 people were injured in the attack, and he promised to track down those responsible.

"There have been minor bombs or just noise, but this time they aimed for innocent lives," Prayuth said. "They want to destroy our economy, our tourism."

Prawut released several photos of the man, with and without the backpack, on social media. The images were apparently taken from closed-circuit video at the shrine before the bomb exploded. Video posted separately on Thai media appeared to show the same man sitting on a bench at the shrine, taking off the backpack and leaving it behind as he walked away.

Without elaborating, the Prime Minister said, "Today we have seen the closed-circuit footage, we saw some suspects, but it wasn't clear. We have to find them first." Prayuth said the government will expedite "all investigative efforts to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice."

The bomb, which police say was made from a pipe and weighed 3 kilograms (more than 6 pounds), went off about 7 p.m. in an upscale area filled with tourists, office workers and shoppers. No one has claimed responsibility.

On Tuesday, Bangkok was rattled by a second blast at a popular ferry pier, which caused no injuries. Prawut said Tuesday's blast at the Sathorn Pier frequented by river ferries and tourist boats also was caused by a pipe bomb and could be related to the shrine attack.

Police said that bomb was thrown from the Taksin Bridge and fell into the Chao Phraya River, where it exploded. Security video showed a sudden blast of water over a walkway at the pier as bystanders ran for safety.

The Erawan Shrine is dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma, but is extremely popular among Thailand's Buddhists as well as Chinese tourists. Although Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, it has enormous Hindu influence on its religious practices and language.

Thai authorities identified five victims as Thai and four as Chinese - two of them from Hong Kong - along with two Malaysians and one Singaporean, and said the nationalities of the other eight victims remained unknown.

The British Foreign Office said one victim was a British citizen named Vivian Chan who lived in Hong Kong. It was not immediately clear whether she was one of the two Hong Kong victims identified by Thai officials. Officials at London's BPP University said she had studied there.

Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said authorities had no idea an attack had been planned. "We didn't know about this ahead of time. We had no intelligence on this attack," he said.

Prayuth vowed to "hurry and find the bombers," though he noted there may be just one perpetrator. Speaking to reporters, he continued what has been a notoriously prickly relationship with the media since the former general took control in a May 2014 coup that ousted a civilian government.

Asked if there were leads on the suspects, Prayuth bristled: "We are still investigating. The bomb has just exploded - why are you asking now? Do you understand the word investigation? It's not like they claim responsibility."

Thailand has seen many violent attacks in recent years, particularly in a more-than-decade-long insurgency by Muslim separatists that has killed over 5,000 in the country's south. Those attacks have never reached the capital, however.

Bangkok has seen politically charged violence in the past decade; the deadliest, in 2010, killed more than 90 over two months and was centered on the same intersection where Monday's bomb went off. But none of those attacks included a bomb that seemed intended to produce mass casualties.

Matthew Wheeler, Southeast Asia security analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the bombing was a "new type of attack for Bangkok" that doesn't bear the marks of typical violence in the past decade from political instability or separatists.

"It is certainly not like politically motivated attacks we've seen in the past which have generally been designed to grab attention but not cause casualties," Wheeler said, adding that he expected it would have "major ramifications for security in Thailand."

The suspect seen in the video wearing a yellow shirt raised initial questions about whether the violence was politically motivated, since one group of previous protesters was known to wear that color of clothing. But officials have not linked the attack to Thai politics.
At least 20 people were confirmed dead and 126 injured, according to the Erawan Emergency Center.

Bangkok has been relatively peaceful since the military coup after several months of sometimes violent protests against the previous government.

At the same time, the military government has tightly controlled dissent, arresting hundreds of its opponents and banning protests. Tensions have risen in recent months, with the junta making clear it may not hold elections until 2017 and wants a constitution that will allow some type of emergency rule to take the place of an elected government.

Stirring the pot has been exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted as Prime Minister last year.

Several countries have issued travel warnings since the bombing. The US Embassy in Bangkok advised US citizens to avoid the shrine's area.

The Hong Kong government raised its travel alert for Bangkok to "red," urging its citizens to avoid nonessential trips to Thailand. New Way Travel, a Bangkok-based agency that caters to Hong Kong tourists, said all its tour groups scheduled to arrive in coming days had cancelled.

"We didn't think anything like this could happen in Bangkok," said Holger Siegle of Germany, who said he and his newlywed wife had chosen Thailand because it seemed safe. "Our honeymoon and our vacation will go on, but with a very unsafe feeling."

Read: Bangkok: Death toll climbs to 21 in blast outside Hindu shrine

First Published: Aug 19, 2015 08:54 IST