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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Six bombs shatter Thai tourist strip

BANGKOK: At least one Australian has been injured after a string of bombs tore apart a popular tourist area in Thailand, killing four people and wounding dozens.

Six simultaneous bombs tore into revellers along the main bar strip in Hat Yai, southern Thailand's largest city that serves as its tourist hub.

A Canadian tourist was among the dead, according to officials. A dead female mistakenly identified by medical staff as a Chinese tourist turned out later to be an ethnic minority from Chiang Mai, hospital officials said.

The bombings marked a significant escalation in the Islamic insurgency that has raged since 2004, with separatists appearing more willing now to kill civilians, analysts said.

Health Minister Pinit Jarusombat said 14 other foreigners were among the 72 wounded, and included six Malaysians, three Singaporeans, three Britons, an Indian and an American.

Outside the Brown Sugar Bar and Cafe, an Australian visitor still wearing his hospital gown stood staring at the wreckage of where he was drinking the night before.

"I feel really lucky today," said the distraught man, who did not give his name, adding that doctors had removed shrapnel from his shoulder and that his girlfriend had suffered leg fractures.

The blasts came just weeks after a wave of bombings targeted 22 banks throughout the violence-plagued south, where more than 1400 people have been killed in daily attacks by suspected Islamic militants since January 2004.

Unlike previous attacks, which were mostly small in scale and claimed police and military, or those sympathetic to the Government as their victims, the most recent operations appear to be striking at centres of commerce or tourism. Dana Dillon, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said targeting of commercial districts filled with civilians was a departure from previous insurgent attacks.

"The terrorists are actually becoming terrorists. Before, there seemed to be a ... restriction on killing people. They wanted to restrict (attacks) to police or military," he said.

"But it now seems arbitrary. Things are more dangerous than before, and attacking foreigners is definitely, definitely expanding war," he said.

Scores of Thais were also hurt in the blasts, and it is the indiscriminate nature of the attacks that concerns Sunai Phasuk, a consultant for the rights group, Human Rights Watch.

"The selection of targets by insurgents is becoming indiscriminate. Insurgents do not differentiate their targets between government and military targets and civilian targets," he said.

This is the phenomenon now in the south," he said. "It is an escalation in the violence in the south. The violence is escalating in terms of the number of attacks, seriousness of attacks and the lethality of attacks," he added.

Soon after the blasts, nearly 1000 foreign and Thai tourists staying in hotels along Hat Yai's main road were evacuated, The Nation newspaper reported.

Hat Yai was also the victim of deadly insurgent violence in April of last year when the city's airport was bombed, killing two people, and the city has been struggling to rebuild its tourism industry.

Experts blamed a complex web of Islamic groups whose roots go back to a decades-old separatist movement with ties to organised crime and corrupt local officials.

One bright spot, they say, is the lack of evidence connecting Thai separatists with global or regional terror groups such as al-Qa'ida or Jemaah Islamiah, which was behind the 2002 Bali bombings.

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