Thai security officers shot dead a rogue army soldier who went on a rampage in central Thailand on Saturday evening, killing 26 and injuring dozens more, a Cabinet minister announced on Sunday morning.
“Thank you police and army for ending the situation. Shooter shot dead!!!” Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul wrote on a post on Facebook.
Police and the army confirmed that an overnight siege at a shopping center in Nakhon Ratchasima, 260km northeast of Bangkok, was over. This was followed by blurred vision on national TV just after 10am allegedly showing the gunman fatally wounded in the basement of the mall.
Police identified the shooter as Sergeant-Major Jakrapanth Thomma, a 32-year-old junior army officer.
Dozens of terrified shoppers were evacuated from the mall early on Sunday as armed police said they had “taken control” of the ground floor of the Terminal 21 complex from the gunman.
The death toll was put at 27 by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha when he spoke to the press briefly after lunch – 26 victims and the gunman. Dozens more were injured, some seriously.
He said the gunman’s motive appeared to be a personal dispute.
Authorities have yet to give firm details about what happened in the mall. There had initially been fears that the gunman could try to hide among the panicked crowd.
Police from the Crime Suppression Division urged fleeing shoppers to “raise their hands” and identify themselves on the ground floor “and authorities will evacuate you.”
Earlier Jakrapanth relayed his shooting spree through Facebook posts which charted the attack from an army barracks to the mall, where an unknown number of shoppers were trapped.
Kongcheep Tantravanich, a defense ministry spokesman said: “Police, military commandos and sharpshooters are surrounding Terminal 21,” he said.
“We don’t know why he did this. It appears he went mad,” he was quoted as telling Reuters.
Anutin, the Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister, told reporters many people were already in hospital in a “serious condition.”
The bloodshed began at about 3pm on Saturday afternoon when Jakrapanth shot three people – among them at least one soldier – at a nearby army barracks.
“He stole an army vehicle and drove into the town center,” police Lieutenant-Colonel Mongkol Kuptasiri.
There the gunman used weapons stolen from the army arsenal to bring carnage to a town center, walking into the Terminal 21 mall.
He “used a machine gun and shot innocent victims resulting in many injured and dead,” police spokesman Krissana Pattanacharoen said.
Jakrapanth’s motive remains unclear. There has been speculation he had a serious dispute with his commanding officer, who he shot dead, over a land deal.
Through the afternoon he posted images of himself and wrote several posts on his Facebook page as the attack unfolded including “Should I surrender?” and “No one can escape death.”
In one Facebook video – later deleted – the assailant, wearing an army helmet, filmed from an open jeep saying, “I’m tired… I can’t pull my finger anymore” and making a trigger symbol with his hand.
There were also photos of a man in a ski mask holding up a pistol.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “We have removed the gunman’s accounts from our services and will work around the clock to remove any violating content related to this attack as soon as we become aware of it.”
Army in place
A witness who was inside the mall before the attack said the shopping center was packed with shoppers on a long weekend.
“There were loads of people at the mall today,” a 32-year-old from the city said, requesting anonymity. “I was pretty shocked when I found out because I just left the mall not long before.”
Street lights below the shopping center were switched off as army and police units sealed off the Terminal 21 mall.
The city – better known as Korat – is home to one of Thailand’s largest barracks in a country where the military is enmeshed in politics and society.
Thailand has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world. Several shootings at courthouses late last year renewed concern about gun violence in the country.
In another high-profile case, a two-year-old boy was among three people killed in Thailand when a masked gunman robbed a jewelry shop in Lop Buri last month.
And two lawyers were shot dead late last year by a clerk at a court in the country’s east during a hearing over a land dispute.
– With reporting by AFP