Deadly bomb blast rips through central Bangkok

Explosion occurred near Erawan Shrine, a Hindu temple in popular tourist area; no group has claimed responsibility

A bomb exploded at a Hindu shrine in the center of Bangkok on Monday, killing at least 18 people and leaving many more injured.

The blast in the Thai capital occurred near the Erawan Shrine, a popular tourist destination with relatively little security near the Grand Hyatt Hotel and shopping centers. Many Thais worship there.

"It was a pipe bomb," national police chief Somyot Poompanmuang said. "It was placed inside the Erawan Shrine."

Immediate reports of casualty figures varied. Authorities told the Associated Press that at least 18 people have been confirmed dead and 117 injured. 

Thai government spokesman, Maj. Gen. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, told The Bangkok Post on Tuesday that it is too early to speculate on who was behind the attack, for which no group has claimed responsibility. But the perpetator likely sought to "destroy" the nation's heavily tourism-based economy, the defense minister said. 

"The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district," Prawit Wongsuwan told Reuters late Monday.

The Erawan Shrine, dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma, is popular among Thailand's Buddhists as well as Chinese tourists. Three Chinese citiwere among the dead, the official Xinhua news agency said. Two Hong Kong residents, two people from Malaysia and one person from the Philippines were also killed in the blast, officials said. Many of the wounded were from China and Taiwan.

At Chulakongkorn Hospital, one of a number of nearby medical facilities that received victims, the scene was chaotic as nurses ferried the injured on gurneys. 

Earlier, authorities ordered onlookers back, saying they were checking for a second bomb, but police later said no other explosive devices were found, according to Reuters. 

CCTV footage showed the scene seconds before and after the explosion, which sent nearby pedestrians scurrying for safety.

“This probably the worst bomb in the history of Bangkok,” Pravit Rojanaphruk, a political analyst and regular columnist for Thailand's Nation newspaper, told Al Jazeera. “Bangkok itself has no history of a major-scale bomb with mass casualties.”

The power of the blast blew the iron gates outside the shrine outward, and Thai officials said that high-grade explosives were used. Shrapnel from the explosion could be seen as far as 100 yards from the scene, which authorities have cordoned off to make way for a several emergency vehicles. 

Thai forces have been fighting a low-level Muslim insurgency in the predominantly Buddhist country's south, although those rebels have rarely launched attacks outside their ethnic Malay heartland. More than 6,400 people — mostly civilians — have been killed there. 

The nation's army chief said on Tuesday that the bombing did not match the tactics previously used by insurgents.

"This does not match with incidents in southern Thailand. The type of bomb used is also not in keeping with the south," Royal Thai Army chief and deputy defense minister Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr said in a televised interview.

Peace talks between the rebel factions and the Thai government are set for later this month. 

The country has also been riven for a decade by intense and sometimes violent rivalry between political factions in Bangkok and elsewhere. 

A military junta seized power in Thailand in May last year to end months of deadly protests against the former civilian government. But the country remains tense and deeply divided after nearly a decade of endless protests punctuated by two coups.

Self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sits at the heart of the political divide. His parties have won every election since 2001, but he is loathed by the Bangkok-based elite.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Veronica Pedrosa contributed to this report from Bangkok. 

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