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Insurgent Bombings in Thailand Targeting Tourist Cities, Killing 4 People

 People help an injured man after twin bombs exploded in the upscale resort of Hua Hin, Thailand, on Thursday. AFP


People help an injured man after twin bombs exploded in the upscale resort of Hua Hin, Thailand, on Thursday.
AFP

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HUA HIN — Attackers using firebombs and homemade explosives struck a series of popular resort cities and beach towns across Thailand in some of the worst violence to hit the country since a military coup two years ago. At least four people were killed and dozens wounded, including 11 foreigners.

It was not clear who was behind the attacks Thursday and Friday, which followed a successful referendum held last weekend on a new constitution that critics say will bolster the military’s power for years to come.

The attacks occurred south of Bangkok and several of the blasts — including one on Patong beach in the tourist town of Phuket and four in the seaside resort city of Hua Hin — appeared designed to strike the tourism industry, which provides vital income to the government.

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Police said firebombs also triggered blazes at markets and shops in six places, including Phuket, Trang, Surat Thani, Phang Nga and a souvenir shop in the tourist town of Ao Nang, Krabi.

Thailand’s economy has sagged since the military seized power in a 2014 coup. But tourism has remained one of the few bright spots, with visitors rising to 30 million in 2015 and more than 14 million having visited by May 2016, according to the latest official figures.

Foreign governments, including the United States, issued warnings Friday urging travelers to use caution and avoid affected areas.

Police said four of the injured tourists were from Germany, two from Italy and one from Austria. The Netherlands said four of its citizens were also wounded.

“It is not yet clear who is behind these attacks,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement. “But one thing is clear: no political aim justifies violence and attacks on innocent people.”

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the government was doing the best it “could to provide security to the country. … We have to band together and stay strong.”

“Why has it happened now when the country is improving … Who (did it)? Who doesn’t want to see Thailand getting better? Which group? Go find out for me.”

Police said they were investigating all leads and had ruled out links to international militant groups.

Royal Thai Police Col. Krisana Patanacharoen said it was “too early to conclude” who was behind the attacks. But he said the bombings followed “a similar pattern used in the southern parts of the country” — a reference to a low-level insurgency in the country’s Islamic south that has ground on for more than a decade and killed more than 5,000 people.

Southern militants fighting for greater autonomy have carried out sophisticated, coordinated attacks before, but most have hit three provinces in the far south that were not among those targeted Thursday and Friday.

The most devastating explosion occurred overnight in Hua Hin on a busy street filled with bars and restaurants. One Thai woman was killed and about 20 people were wounded, half of them foreigners, according to police Lt. Chaiyot Tisawong.

Gen. Sithichai Srisopacharoenrath, the superintendent of police in Hua Hin, said the bombs were hidden inside potted plants and were set off by remote control, about half an hour apart. The second blast caused the death and injuries. He said a Samsung cellphone had been recovered that they believe was used to detonate at least one of the bombs.

On Friday, debris and ball bearings could be seen strewn across the road as police investigated the scene. The blast damaged a pair of phone booths and shattered the window of a nearby Starbucks.

Many shops in the city center closed afterward and normally bustling streets were empty, for good reason: Hua Hin was hit by another two bombs that exploded in quick succession Friday morning near a clock tower, killing one person and wounding four more.

Separate blasts were reported elsewhere in the south. One exploded on Phuket city’s popular Loma Beach, injuring one person. Two more detonated half an hour apart in front of two police stations in Surat Thani in southern Thailand, killing one and wounding three. And two bombs exploded outside a market in Phang Nga, damaging two vehicles but causing no casualties.

On Thursday afternoon, a bomb blew up in the southern province of Trang — full of beautiful beaches and tourist islands — killing one person and injuring six, according to police and Thai press reports.

In Hua Hin, 51-year-old Italian Andrea Tazzioli said he “saw light, white light” after the second of Thursday night’s explosions, and that he immediately felt pain in his shoulder “like big fire.”

Speaking later at a hospital, he said he fell down and saw people “screaming, the glass broken, table broken, confusion.”

Tourist Shane Brett told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. from his hotel room that there was panic after the first Hua Hin explosion.

“I was at a bar in the main bar district in Hua Hin right outside the Hilton Hotel and at first I heard kind of a bang … and everyone kind of panicked,” Brett said.

He looked outside and saw people running. Half an hour later, heading back to his hotel, he saw “a good few people injured and the whole area just panicking … the whole area was just shut down with police cars, ambulances.”

Thailand has been plagued by political violence, including several bombings, since the populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 military coup after demonstrations accused him of corruption, abuse of power.

Thaksin’s ouster set off sometimes-bloody battles for power between his supporters and opponents, who include the military. The government of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister in 2011, was toppled in the country’s last coup in 2014.

On Sunday, Thai voters approved a referendum on a new constitution that is supposed to lead to an election next year. Critics say it is undemocratic and is fashioned to keep the military in control for at least five more years even if a free election is held.

Here is a brief timeline of major blasts in Thailand in the past five years, compiled by AFP. The list does not include incidents in the deep South.

2010 July: A suspected bomb rips through a bus stop in central Bangkok, leaving at least nine people injured and reigniting tensions two months after the end of opposition protests.
October: A blast at a Bangkok apartment complex kills four, with the government blaming the incident on the anti-government “Red Shirt” movement, which denies any involvement.

2011 December: A makeshift explosive device is found and defused near the government lottery office in the capital with authorities saying the perpetrators wanted to “challenge the government”.

2012 February: A string of botched blasts across Bangkok injure several people in an alleged plot by Iranian suspects to kill Israeli diplomats. Two Iranian men, including one who accidentally blew off his own legs, were sentenced in 2013 to between 15 years and life over the failed plot.

2013 May: A homemade bomb hidden near rubbish bins in a busy suburban Bangkok shopping area explodes, injuring seven people.

2014 January: Twin blasts by unknown attackers at an anti-government protest in central Bangkok leave 28 injured.
February: A woman and a child are killed in a grenade attack during an anti-government rally in a Bangkok shopping district popular with tourists.
February: A grenade explosion also in a bustling Bangkok shopping district kills three people, including two children.
March: A string of grenade blasts rocks the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, popular with foreign tourists, leaving four people wounded. Police say the attacks could be linked to the kingdom’s deadly political crisis.

2015 February: Two small bombs explode near a popular shopping mall in downtown Bangkok, injuring one man.
April: A car bomb packed inside a pick-up truck on the Thai resort island of Samui wounds seven people, including an Italian girl.
August: An explosion rips through the Erawan shrine in downtown Bangkok killing 20 people, mainly ethnic Chinese tourists, in the deadliest such attack in the country in recent years.

2016 February: A car bomb detonates outside a police station in southern Thailand, injuring at least seven people.
August: An explosion at a Trang street market kills a male vendor and wounds at least five bystanders.
August: Twin blasts in the seaside resort town of Hau Hin kill one Thai woman selling papaya and injure 19, including foreign tourists.

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Pitman reported from Bangkok. Associated Press journalists Tassanee Vejpongsa, Grant Peck, Natnicha Chuwiruch and Vicky Ge Huang in Bangkok, and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that Phuket’s Loma Beach was hit, not Patong Beach, and that there were four explosions in Hua Hin, not three.

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