Heavily armed raiders stole a large quantity of explosives from a quarry in Thailand’s largely Muslim south, just days after a bomb attack in the region and prompting fears of another, officials said on Wednesday.
“With this amount of fertilizer, you could blow up a whole town,” Pallop Pinmanee, deputy chief of the Internal Security Operations Command, told Reuters at the scene of the robbery, which included 1.4 tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
The government ordered a full alert, not only in three provinces near the Malaysian border under martial law since January, but also two more along the frontier ahead of next month’s Thai New Year celebrations which draw many Malaysians.
“These people are apparently seeking to destabilize the situation and hurt the tourism industry,” Interior Minister Bhokin Bhalakula told reporters.
“We have ordered a full alert for government installations, public places and tourist resorts in many areas,” he said after 10 masked men armed with AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles raided the quarry in Libon, 70 km (40 miles) from the Malaysian border.
They made off with 1.4 tonnes of ammonium nitrate used in making explosives for blasting, 58 sticks of dynamite and 180 detonators, police said.
The Manu Rock Grinding Co quarry was closed when the raid took place on Tuesday evening with only two security guards on duty and the raiders went straight to the separate, poorly locked sheds where each item was kept, they said.
That suggested they knew exactly what they were looking for and where to find it, they added.
Bhokin said the alert covered the southern commercial hub of Hat Yai and the west coast town of Satun which draw thousands of Malaysian tourists during Thailand’s Songkran New Year celebrations from April 13 to 15.
“There is a possibility that they might act before or during Songkran,” he said.
The two towns are in different provinces from the three put under martial law in January after armed men killed four soldiers and stole many weapons, including M-16s, in a raid on an army camp in the area in January.
Since then, 60 people, most of them officials and police but including three Buddhist monks, have been killed in a surge of violence some officials think marks a revival of a low-key separatist war fought in the 1970s and 1980s.
Fears the violence could escalate have risen sharply since a motorcycle bomb wounded 28 people, including eight Malaysians, at a karaoke bar in the border town of Sungai Kolok on Saturday.
That was the first major attack aimed at civilians since the raid on the army camp and the government believes it marked a shift in tactics.
“They have intensified their campaign, raising the level of violence and aiming at tourist spots so as to drive tourists away,” Bhokin said of an industry which draws 10 million foreigners a year and accounts for six percent of gross domestic product.
“We are now trying to read their minds to find out where they will strike next to stop tourists from coming.”