BANGKOK—A former police officer shot dead at least 35 people, most of them children, when he stormed a nursery in eastern Thailand on Thursday in one of the kingdom’s deadliest mass killings.
After the attack, the gunman Panya Khamrab went home and killed his wife and child before taking his own life, the police said.
Armed with a shotgun, pistol and knife, Khamrab opened fire on the child care center in the town of Uthai Sawan in Nong Bua Lam Phu province, about 500 kilometers northeast of the capital Bangkok, at about 1:30 p.m. (Manila time).
Discharged from service
The gunman killed 35 people, including 23 children, and wounded 12 others, Police Col. Jakkapat Vijitraithaya told Agence France-Presse (AFP) from the province where the attack happened.
The 34-year-old former police lieutenant colonel had been dismissed from the force last year for drug use, Vijitraithaya added.
Eyewitness Paweena Purichan, 31, was riding her motorcycle to her shop when she encountered the fleeing Khamrab driving erratically.
“He intended to crash into others on the road,” she told AFP.
‘People thought it was fireworks’
“The attacker rammed a motorbike and two people were injured. I sped off to get away from him,” Paweena said, adding: “There was blood everywhere.”The attacker was well known in the area as a drug addict, according to the witness.
Video footage after the incident showed distraught parents weeping in a shelter outside the nursery, a yellow-walled single-story building set in a garden.
About 30 children were at the center when the gunman arrived, fewer than usual, as heavy rain had kept many people away, district official Jidapa Boonsom, who was working in a nearby office at the time, told Reuters.
“The shooter came in around lunchtime and shot four or five officials at the child care center first,” Jidapa said.
Among them was a teacher who was eight months pregnant, she said.
“At first people thought it was fireworks,” she said.
The gunman then forced his way into a locked room where the young pupils were sleeping, Jidapa said, to kill children there with a knife.
“It’s really shocking. We were very scared and running to hide once we knew it was shooting. So many children got killed, I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.
The gunman had been facing trial on a drugs charge and had been in court in the hours before the shooting, a police spokesperson told broadcaster ThaiPBS.
Khamrab had come to collect his child from the day care center but opened fire when he did not find the child there, Paisal Luesomboon said.
“He (attacker) was already stressed and when he couldn’t find his child he was more stressed and started shooting,” the spokesperson said.
Videos posted on social media showed sheets covering what appeared to be the bodies of children lying in pools of blood at the center.
Reuters could not immediately authenticate the footage.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, in a statement on Facebook, called the shooting a “shocking incident.”
“I have ordered the police chief to travel to the scene immediately to take necessary actions and all involved parties to provide immediate relief to all affected people,” he said in the statement.
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan will travel to Uthai Sawan to visit the scene on Thursday, his office said.
Thailand forms part of Southeast Asia’s so-called Golden Triangle, an infamous hot spot for the trafficking and abuse of drugs.
Surging supplies of methamphetamine have sent street prices crashing in Thailand to all-time lows, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The mass killing comes less than a month after a serving army officer shot dead two colleagues at a military training base in Bangkok.
High gun ownership
While Thailand has high rates of gun ownership, mass shootings are extremely rare.
But in the past year, there have been at least two other cases of shooting murders by serving soldiers, according to the Bangkok Post.
In 2020, in one of the kingdom’s deadliest incidents in recent years, a soldier gunned down 29 people and wounded 57 others in a 17-hour rampage that spanned four locations before he was shot dead by commandos.
That mass shooting, linked to a debt dispute between the gunman Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth Thomma and a senior officer, triggered public anger against the military.
The soldier was able to steal assault rifles from an army depot before embarking on his killing spree, posting live updates on social media as he did so.
Military top brass took pains to portray the killer as a rogue soldier.