x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Man held over suspected militant attack on Bangkok tourist sites

Thailand detain a Swedish-Lebanese man with links to Hizbollah, as a US warning to nationals over attacks disappoints Thai authorities.

BANGKOK // Thailand detained a Swedish-Lebanese man suspected of attempting to attack tourist sites in Bangkok and said it was "disappointed" the US warned its citizens of a possible strike without first advising the Thai foreign ministry.

Police are investigating Atris Hussein, 47, after taking him into custody at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on Thursday and are searching for a second suspect still at large, Piya Uthayo, a police spokesman, told reporters. Thai-language newspaper Matichon published a photo-copy of the suspect's Swedish passport.

The US announcement on Friday "made many countries panic and follow the US," the foreign minister, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, told reporters in Bangkok yesterday. "That's why it really disappointed me."

Thailand, a US treaty ally that sent troops to Iraq in 2003, depends on tourism for about 7 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the government, with about 19 million tourist visits last year. Thailand is considering the next diplomatic steps to take because the announcement will affect tourism, Mr Surapong said.

In its warning, the US said "foreign terrorists may be currently looking to conduct attacks against tourist areas in Bangkok in the near future". The US ambassador, Kristie Kenney, said on Twitter the threat is "Bangkok specific" and "credible".

A US Embassy spokesman, Walter Braunohler, said by phone that the warning remains in place even after reports that Thai police were holding a suspect.

"Thailand never creates enemies," Mr Surapong said. "I hope whoever plans to do anything here thinks about our good relationship."

Mr Hussein, linked to Hizbollah, "plotted to create chaos in Bangkok and the plan was terminated after the arrest," the police chief, Priewphan Damaphong, said. The chief named the tourist area of Khao San Road and city centre street Sukhumvit 22 as potential targets and said that under Thai law, police can hold suspects for as long as 60 days before they must be charged or deported.

Swedish officials are trying to confirm the detainee's ownership of the passport published in the Thai press, which appears to be authentic, the foreign ministry spokesman, Andre Mkandawire, said yesterday. The Swedish Embassy in Bangkok has not been able to speak with the suspect, he said.

The US told Thai officials several days ago that two terrorist suspects had entered Bangkok, the defence minister, Yuthasak Sasiprapha, told reporters on Friday. A car bomb might be used at the Israeli embassy, Jewish places of worship, tourist companies or restaurants, he said.

Hizbollah, the Lebanese based Shiite movement, was designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the then US president, Bill Clinton, in 1997. It is among suspected terrorist groups supported by Iran, according to the US State Department.

The threat may stem from US steps aimed at sanctioning Iran over its nuclear programme, according to Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based analyst at defence researcher IHS Jane's.

The US is "looking at pro-Iranian groups that might possibly react to what may very well go down in the Strait of Hormuz and possibly beyond," Mr Davis said. "It seems unlikely that terrorist attacks would be launched before the situation in the Middle East has escalated significantly."

The Iranian vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, threatened on December 27 to block the waterway, a choke point for shipping about a fifth of the world's oil, if the European Union imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic's crude exports.