BANGKOK - A bomb exploded Monday evening at a popular shrine in the heart of Bangkok, an area frequented by thousands of tourists, office workers and shoppers, killing at least 16 people and injuring dozens of others, officials said.
The bomb exploded inside the Erawan Shrine, national police chief Somyot Poompummuang said. He said officials initially believed that a second bomb had been found in a bag nearby, but that it had been determined to be harmless.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bomb, which police said was made from a pipe wrapped in cloth. The Thai capital has been relatively peaceful since a military coup ousted a civilian government in May last year after several months of sometimes violent political protests against the previous government.
The shrine, a tourist landmark also popular with Thais, is located at the Rajprasong intersection, the site of many contentious political demonstrations in recent years and the centre of one of Bangkok's main shopping districts.
Security video showed a powerful flash as the bomb exploded during the evening rush hour.
Somyot said 16 people were confirmed dead. At least 81 people were injured in the blast and were taken to several hospitals around the city, according to the government's Emergency Center.
The dead included Chinese and a Filipino, Somyot said.
"Those who have planted this bomb are cruel. They aim to kill because everyone knows that at 7 p.m. the shrine is crowded with Thais and foreigners. Planting a bomb there means they want to see a lot of dead people,'' he said.
Anusit Kunakorn, secretary of the National Security Council, said Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief, was closely monitoring the situation.
"We still don't know for sure who did this and why,'' Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon told reporters. ``We are not sure if it is politically motivated, but they aim to harm our economy and we will hunt them down.''
Although Bangkok has seen a period of relative calm since last year's coup, there has been some tension in recent months, with the junta making clear that it may not hold elections until 2017 and wants a constitution that will allow some type of emergency rule to take the place of an elected government.
While bombings are rare in Bangkok, they are more common in southern Thailand, where a Muslim separatist insurgency has been flaring for several years.
The last major bombings in Bangkok occurred on New Year's Eve at the end of 2006, when a series of bombs at celebrations around town killed at least three people and wounded dozens. Those bombings occurred just three months after a military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and there was speculation that his supporters carried out the attacks in revenge. However, the bombings were never solved.
The 2006 coup set off a battle for power among Thaksin's supporters and opponents, sometimes in the form of violent protests.
Protesters from both sides sometimes faced armed attacks by unknown groups, with more than 90 people killed in 2010 during pro-Thaksin demonstrations that were quashed by the army. The focus of the 2010 protests was the same intersection where Monday's blast took place, a bustling area in the heart of Bangkok's main shopping district. Several five-star hotels are nearby.
In March this year, several arrests were made in connection with a grenade that was tossed at Bangkok's Criminal Court. Those detained were apparently sympathizers of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement. Critics of the current military government say some of the bombings may have been carried out by the junta to justify its continued suppression of basic rights and liberties. The government denied that.
In April, a car bomb exploded at a shopping mall on the resort island of Samui, injuring seven people. The motive was unclear, though the government suggested it was linked to politics.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Michael Rubin contributed to this report.
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