2 Killed 24 injured as series of blasts rock Bangkok

With the New Year just hours away, a series of six explosions rocked Bangkok on Sunday, killing at least two persons and injuring 24, according to reports.

The explosions came within 90 minutes of each other, the first occurring at the Victory Monument in the center of Thailand’s capital and largest city.

Other explosions were reported at police posts in Bangkok's northern suburbs and in the congested Klong Toey area, near the city’s port and largest slum.

Two more bombs exploded around midnight, injuring 10, including eight foreigners, near CentralWorld, a giant shopping complex in the middle of Bangkok where a New Year countdown is held every year.

One bomb exploded in a phone booth near a passenger bridge, while another went off about 100 meters away. The area was not crowded as police had earlier cancelled festivities after the first bombings.

Hundreds of police and forensics teams cordoned off the area searching for clues. A phone booth next to the street was mangled, and glass and other debris lay strewn about.

The victims included an American, a British and two Thais. A Hungarian woman

suffered a broken leg while the other injuries were not serious.

Through the night, television footage showed damaged vehicles and blood-stained streets and pavement.

While no group claimed immediate credit for the blasts, early reports speculated on the role of Muslim insurgents in the far south while unnamed security sources blamed the bombings on the “old power clique” linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted n a bloodless coup in September, according to the Nation newspaper.

Police immediately canceled New Year's Eve festivities and ordered revelers to disperse after the bombings as panic spread throughout the capital. No motives have been verified.

“The intention was probably to try to intervene or threaten the citizens, or create a panic for the public," Wallop Suwondee, Bangkok's deputy governor, told reporters in a televised press briefing. "But I'd like to confirm that everything is under control now, and I'd like every Thai not to panic and get together."

The most vicious bomb exploded at a bus station near the city center, injuring 17 and killing two, Wallop said.

Injuries were also reported in Klong Toei and a police booth in Saphan Kwai in the north of the city.

Three other bombs exploded in Seacon Square, a large shopping mall, and along a road between Bangkok and neighboring province Nonthaburi, with no injuries reported.

Intelligence sources also were quoted speculating that Muslim insurgents who have waged a bloody rebellion in southern Thailand for several years were behind the blasts.

If that is the case, it is the first time the insurgency has moved beyond the south to strike at the heart of the nation.

Regardless of who was behind the bombings, they appear to have avoided congested tourist districts where tens of thousands of people have gathered for New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Bangkok authorities immediately ordered public New Year's Eve parties cancelled and Bangkok Governor Apirak Kosayodhin told a huge crowd at the Bangkok Countdown 2006 to "go home and stay in peace."

That gathering – at CentralWorld -- is the biggest public party in Thailand drawing upwards of half a million people in central Bangkok each year.

The bombings immediately recalled the Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand's southernmost four provinces, where similar tactics have claimed more than 1,800 lives in recent years. Even so, it was too early to tell who might be behind the explosions.

Suspicion immediately turned to associates of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by the military in a September 19 coup.

The Nation, a leading English-language daily, quoted an anonymous source saying the coup group thought allies of Thaksin were behind the bombings.

The source also claimed that military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont was warned of the bombings ahead of time, and stayed in Bangkok to monitor activities.

Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai political party quickly sought to dismiss those rumors, however. "We urge the CNS (the military junta) to speedily find out the facts before any misunderstanding is widely spread," Jatuporn Promphan, a TRT deputy spokesman, was quoted as saying by The Nation.

"The bombs can be looked at from different angles and a political cause is just one of them,” he said.

It was also believed the army could use the bombings as an excuse to further tighten its grip on power as more soldiers were ordered to be deployed in Bangkok.

Surayud's cabinet voted to lift martial law in Bangkok a month ago, but King Bumibol Adulyadej has yet to endorse the move.

The military government has come under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks. Surayud publicly clashed with former army commander Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and vowed to resign if he was found guilty of illegally purchasing land recently.

On Friday, the junta decided to continue banning activities of political parties and an army spokesman said the generals feared further "severe national problems" if the ban was lifted.

Thaksin has yet to be formally charged with any crimes despite numerous investigations since September. He is currently living in exile, bouncing between London, Hong Kong and China.

"The police are beefing up the team to take care of the situation in any major public places," said Wallop. "It's time for Thais to come together to love each other."

The attacks are unprecedented in Bangkok, which has never had a major terror attack. Unlike other major cities in the region, security in Bangkok tends to be perfunctory and the coup and lingering insurgency have done little, until now, to create a sense of urgency in the Thai capital.

But this has been an extraordinary year. Popular Prime Minister Thaksin was ousted by royalist generals but there has been little unrest since then, largely because the revered king was believed to support his removal.

Little is known about the leaders of the insurgency in southern Thailand, which has claimed hundreds of lives since 2001. No group has identified itself as leading the insurgency and the government has yet to find anyone to negotiate an end to hostilities.

The Bangkok bombings bore little resemblance to bomb attacks in the south, however, which have tended to involve improvised explosive devices (IEDs) copied from Iraq, usually set off by mobile phones, or vehicular bombs placed in motorcycles.

Thailand is generally peaceful, apart from the southern provinces, and there has been no deadly political violence here since 1992, when mass protests overthrew a military government.

The junta leader and army commander, Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, a Muslim, is out of Thailand on the Haj in Mecca and will not return until Thursday.