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Thai Insurgents Steal Ingredient For Huge Bomb

Thai Insurgents Steal Ingredient For Huge Bomb


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The day before British police seized a half-ton of ammonium nitrate in England, "insurgents" in Thailand's Muslim-majority, violent south successfully stole three times that amount, enough for a bomb similar to the explosives which bloodied Istanbul, Riyadh and Bali.

"About 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) was the stolen amount" of ammonium nitrate taken by gunmen from a quarry in southern Thailand, said Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's spokesman, Jakrapob Penkair, in a recorded interview on Thursday (April 1).

A ton can be measured in three ways -- U.S., metric or British -- and is equivalent to 900-1,008 kilograms (2,000-2,240 pounds), making Thailand's stolen ammonium nitrate about 1.4 tons.

When anti-government Americans exploded a two-ton ammonium nitrate bomb in Oklahoma City in April 1995, the blast reduced a multi-story federal building to rubble, killing more than 160 people.

In October 2002, Muslim insurgents on Indonesia's tourist-packed island of Bali exploded a 1.5 ton bomb made of potassium chlorate, sulphuric acid and aluminium powder, killing 202 people and crippling that Southeast Asian country's economy.

Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network was suspected of using ammonium nitrate last year in explosions which wrecked housing compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing 29 people.

Ammonium nitrate was used for suicide bomb assaults in Istanbul, Turkey, destroyed the British consulate and a bank, killing 160 people earlier this year.

Police in London discovered a half-ton of ammonium nitrate in a self-storage facility on Wednesday (March 31), prompting fear that Islamic guerrillas were planning to bomb airports, shopping zones or other targets in England.

"That adds to the intensity of the problem," Mr. Jakrapob said, referring to the potential destructive power of the substance.

"Ammonium nitrate could be a major component that can, [with] dynamite and detonators, ignite to make the bomb work," he said.

Ten gunmen tied up two guards and stole the crystalline substance, along with sticks of dynamite and detonators, on Tuesday (March 30) from a quarry's warehouse in southern Yala province and fled in two pickup trucks, officials said.

The warehouse stacked heavy, white bags -- bearing the words "AMMONIUM NITRATE" in big letters across each bag -- for use in blasting rocky hillsides to get ore, construction-grade stone, and create roads.

"The armed forces, the police and the Ministry of Interior, to name a few, [are] ready to handle the situation right now," Mr. Jakrapob insisted.

About 500 armed separatists are stalking the south, vigorously recruiting disaffected people with hopes of boosting their strength to 3,000, said Pallop Pinmanee, deputy chief of the Internal Security Operations Command.

They draw strength from "sympathizers" who total about three to five percent of the south's 1.6 million population, Mr. Pallop reportedly said.

Thailand is still reeling from its worst-ever explosion in the south after insurgents exploded a motorcycle-bomb in front of a karaoke bar in troubled Narathiwat province, on Saturday (March 27), injuring 29 people.

"We had the worst case when the bomb exploded in Narathiwat, in that pub, when the insurgents targeted innocent people who had nothing to do whatsoever with the security matters," Mr. Jakrapob said.

Some officials warned an April 13-15 Songkran holiday celebrating the start of the Buddhist year was a likely target date for insurgents to detonate one or more bombs made from the freshly stolen ammonium nitrate, because millions of people gather throughout this mainly Buddhist country to gleefully splash water on each other or engage in aggressive squirt gun fights.

"There is no certain date when insurgents would start working on their plan," the prime minister's spokesman said.

"We have to be working around the clock to be sure, not only for Songkran, but other holidays and other working days as well, so that people in the country are in good hands. Songkran is not a bigger concern, it is one of the regular concerns we already have in this kind of a situation," Mr. Jakrapob said.

"I suspect that the culprits behind this heist are aiming to strike before or during Songkran in order to terrify tourists and make a strong impact on tourism industry," newly appointed Interior Minister Bhokin Bhalakula was quoted as saying.

Thai officials and security forces earlier suffered harsh criticism for downplaying violence in the south by blaming "bandits" for the almost daily assassinations, bombings, arson attacks and other assaults which appeared to be the work of rebels linked to Islamic separatists.

"Insurgents and insurgency" are the new adjectives to describe the violence in the south, Mr. Jakrapob said.

"But the Thai government largely sees this problem, still, as a domestic problem," he said.

In January, Bangkok clamped martial law on the three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala after gunmen raided an army barracks and stole hundreds of assault rifles.

Assassins have killed about 60 people, including police, Buddhist clergy, village officials and others in a spate of shootings, hackings and bombings throughout the impoverished south this year.

Many saffron-robed Buddhist monks, along with doctors, nurses, teachers and other community workers have fled the south because they fear falling victim to future assassinations.

"Part of the problem is that the government has been less than truthful to the people, especially when it comes to issues deemed sensitive to the Muslim community -- like the decision to join the U.S. in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the presence of members of international terrorist organizations on our soil," the Nation newspaper warned in an editorial.

"Police have physically abused suspects, including beatings and applying electrical shocks to testicles," National Human Rights Commissioner Wasan Panit recently said he was told by victims.

Islamic separatists want to force Thailand's south to unite with Muslim regions in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines, so they can rule by "sharia" laws drawn from the Islamic holy book, the Koran, compiled 1,300 years ago.

Ammonium nitrate is relatively cheap and safe to store and can be mixed with fuel oil and plugged with a detonator to create an efficient bomb, making it the substance of choice for Islamic-related terrorism, ANFO car bombs by the Irish Republican Army and other uses.

In addition to quarries, ammonium nitrate is commonly used throughout the world in fertilizer, making it difficult for authorities to control.

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/

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