(Adds coordination with Interpol in 15th paragraph.)
Feb. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Iranians arrested after blasts on a Bangkok street aimed to attack Israeli diplomats, and the devices used were similar to bombs targeting Israelis in India and Georgia this week, according to Thailand’s police chief.
“The suspects targeted Israeli diplomats in Thailand,” Priewphan Damaphong said in Bangkok yesterday, hours after he confirmed that the bombs contained magnets designed to attach to vehicles. India’s initial investigations suggest that a magnetic device was attached to an Israeli diplomat’s car on Feb. 13 in New Delhi seconds before it exploded injuring the woman, the city’s police commissioner, B.K. Gupta, has said.
“The type of explosive device is similar to the incident in India,” Priewphan told reporters. The men “were not targeting a place.”
The incidents in India, Georgia and Thailand increase tensions as Israeli leaders, who haven’t ruled out a military strike, say time is running out for sanctions to deter Iran from building nuclear weapons. The U.S. and the European Union have tightened economic restrictions while seeking to avert a military conflagration in a region that holds more than half of global oil reserves.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet convened yesterday to discuss the attacks and hear Foreign Ministry and security officials’ assessments of the situation, Netanyahu’s office said in an e-mailed statement.
Before the meeting, Netanyahu told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that unless Iran is stopped, attacks against Israel will spread to other countries.
“Israel’s security apparatus will know how to fight the Iranian threat,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said yesterday, according to an e-mailed statement from his office.
Iran denies involvement in the attacks.
“Efforts by Israel to harm the friendly relations between Thailand and Iran will bear no results,” Ramin Mehmanparast, a foreign ministry spokesman, was quoted as saying by the Iranian state-run Mehr news agency. Israel’s “coordinated baseless accusations of our country having a hand in blasts in India and Georgia and Bangkok shows the plot and the setting up of a suspicious scenario.”
The attacks follow the deaths of several Iranian nuclear scientists, the most recent in a Jan. 11 car bombing in Tehran that Iran said Israel had orchestrated. They also coincided with the fourth anniversary of the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, who was a leader of the military wing of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist organization.
India, Thailand and Georgia were probably targeted according to the assets the perpetrators were able to deploy, Will Hartley, head of the Terrorism & Insurgency Centre at defense researcher IHS Jane’s, said in an e-mail.
“The initial impression is that they were selected to demonstrate a wide-ranging international capability, rather than an intent to target the specific countries themselves,” he said.
Thai officials detained two men with Iranian passports, including one who blew his own legs off in the Feb. 14 blasts. Priewphan identified one of the suspects as Mohammad Khazaei, 42, who he said police have connected to the explosions with closed-circuit television images.
The men were charged yesterday with possession of explosive devices with the intent to harm others, Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakdi said by phone.
Malaysian authorities arrested a third suspect in the attack, Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police Ismail Omar said in a mobile-phone text message. Thai authorities issued an arrest warrant for the suspect, Masoud Sedaghatzadeh, and are working with Interpol to arrest Iranian woman Rohani Leila, who helped the three men rent a house in Bangkok and left Thailand on Feb. 5, Monthon Ngernwattana, who handles international cases for the Thai police, told reporters today.
Thailand is seeking approval from Malaysian authorities to extradite the suspect and a plane has already been prepared to transport the man, Pol Lt Gen Thanakorn Siri-at, commissioner of the Special Branch Bureau, told reporters today in Bangkok.
The arrests mark the second time in as many months that Thai authorities have detained suspects accused of targeting Jewish sites in Bangkok. Police last month charged a Swedish- Lebanese man they linked to Hezbollah with possessing illegal substances after detaining him in connection with a plan to attack sites frequented by Americans and Israelis.
The arrest came three days after the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok warned Jan. 13 that “foreign terrorists” aimed to attack tourist areas. The U.S. and U.K. again warned citizens traveling in Thailand to remain vigilant after the Feb. 14 attacks, which injured four people in addition to the suspect.
“The problems of international politics have affected us as well as other countries,” Wichien Potephosree, secretary- general of the Thai National Security Council, said in Bangkok yesterday. “Thailand is a soft spot because we welcome foreigners to promote our tourism and economy.”
Thailand’s SET Index fell 0.1 percent as of 2:54 p.m. local time after gaining the most in about a month yesterday. The baht fell 0.3 percent to 30.87 per dollar. Thailand’s economy, the second-biggest in Southeast Asia, relies on tourism for about 7 percent of its gross domestic product.
The incident in Bangkok may deter foreigners planning to visit Thailand, Tourism Minister Chumpol Silapa-Archa told reporters. In January, the number of visitors increased 7.7 percent to 1.94 million, government statistics show. Tourists from Israel increased 4.6 percent to almost 14,000.
“Thailand has a tradition of hospitality with large numbers of people entering and leaving the country as tourists and on business,” said Tim Huxley, executive director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia in Singapore. “It looks like these terrorists have exploited Thailand’s openness.”
U.S. officials are waiting for the results of an investigation into the Thailand, India and Georgia attacks, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington Feb. 14.
“These events do come on the heels of other disrupted attacks targeted at Israel and Western interests,” Nuland said. “So they serve as a reminder that a variety of states and non- state actors continue to view international terrorism as a legitimate foreign policy tool, which we consider reprehensible.”
Israeli police elevated alerts Feb. 14 across the country following the series of incidents, while Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the events in Thailand bolstered the case for blaming Iran.
“The attempted terrorist attack in Bangkok proves once again that Iran and its proxies continue to perpetrate terror,” Barak said in comments e-mailed by his office.
The Thai incident began when an explosion at the suspects’ rented home in Bangkok prompted them to flee, with one attempting to hail a taxi to escape the area, Sittipab Baiprasert, a police officer, said in an interview with the Nation Channel television network. When a taxi refused to take him, he threw a grenade at the vehicle, he said.
Sanchai Boonsoongnern, a taxi driver who witnessed the incident, told the Nation Channel the device exploded about 1 meter (3.3 feet) from his car. As a policeman then tried to arrest the man, the suspect pulled out another grenade and it detonated, blowing off his legs, Sanchai said.
Police found C-4 explosives in the house the three men were renting, TNN television network reported, without saying where it got the information. A nearby closed circuit television camera showed the three suspects leaving the house after the first explosion, it said.
--With assistance from Ladane Nasseri in Tehran, Anuchit Nguyen and Supunnabul Suwannakij in Bangkok, Manirajan Ramasamy in Kuala Lumpur and Terry Atlas in Washington. Editors: Terry Atlas, Tony Jordan
To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at firstname.lastname@example.org; Suttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at firstname.lastname@example.org