Thailand recoiled in fear on Thursday after at least 36 people, including at least 24 children, were killed in a massacre at a kindergarten in northeastern Thailand, believed to be the country’s deadliest such incident.
Authorities immediately launched a manhunt for the alleged attacker, who was later identified by Thailand’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CIB) as 34-year-old ex-policeman Panya Kamrab. According to the Royal Thai Police, he was suspended from police service earlier this year in connection with drug possession charges.
Among the dozens of victims are Kamrab’s wife and stepson, who investigators say he killed before taking his own life.
Her 2-year-old stepson was enrolled in the daycare she attacked Thursday, but was not there at the time of the attack, a local police chief said.
“(Kamrab) went to look for his two-year-old son, but the boy was not there … so he started shooting and stabbing in the nursery,” senior police spokesman Paisan Luesomboon told CNN.
Kamrab then “managed to get into a room where 24 kids were sleeping together,” escalating all but one of them.
“He also used a knife to stab the children and staff at the center,” Luesomboon said.
One of the center’s teachers described the horrific scene to the local media, explaining that the assailant entered the center around noon, while two other employees were having lunch.
“Suddenly I heard a sound like firecrackers. So I looked back [and] the two workers fell on the floor,” said the teacher.
“Then he pulled out another gun from his waistband…I didn’t expect him to kill the kids as well,” they said.
The teacher said the attacker was also carrying a second gun, as well as a knife, which he used to kill another teacher who was eight months pregnant.
A witness told Reuters she thought the attacker was coming to get her child. When he got to the center, he “didn’t say anything” and “shot the door while the kids were sleeping,” she said.
Most of the deaths were the result of “stabbing,” Luesomboon told CNN.
A teacher told Reuters that the attacker mainly used a knife.
“It all went down very quickly. He was cutting the knife, he didn’t use a gun, he just kept going in there. It’s all through a knife,” he said.
Police General Damrongsak Kittiprapas said the attacker “mainly used a knife” to kill the children.
“Then he went out and started killing anyone he found on the way with a gun or a knife until he got home,” Kittiprapas said. “We surrounded the house and then we saw that he had committed suicide in his home.”
The massacre took place at the Child Development Center in Uthaisawan Na Klang district of Nong Bua Lamphu province, according to a statement from the prime minister, who described the incident as “shocking” and expressed his condolences to the families of the victims.
Located 540 kilometers (about 335 miles) northeast of Bangkok, the province is largely a peaceful and quiet area, not known for violence.
Chan-ocha will travel to the province on Friday to meet with the victims’ families, according to a statement from his office.
The Royal Thai Police said Kamrab was due to be sentenced in his case on October 7 for possession of methamphetamine.
Earlier in an undated search at his residence, police found a Yaba tablet in his house, they added. Yaba is a combination of methamphetamine and caffeine, which is usually a tablet that is crushed and smoked, known locally as “crazy medicine”.
A charge of “category 1” drug possession led to his suspension from police service in January.
Gun ownership in Thailand is relatively high compared to other Southeast Asian countries.
There were more than 10.3 million civilian firearms in Thailand, or about 15 guns per 100 people, according to 2017 data from the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey (SAS). According to the SAS, about 6.2 million of these weapons are legally registered.
Thailand is the second-highest gun homicide rate in Southeast Asia after the Philippines, according to the University of Washington’s 2019 Global Burden of Disease database from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
In a statement, UNICEF said it was “shocked” by the tragedy and sent its condolences to the affected families.
He condemned the attack, saying: “No child should be a target or witness to violence anywhere, anytime,” adding: “Every child development center, school and learning space must be a safe haven for young children to learn, play and grow. in the worst cases.”
UK Prime Minister Liz Truss tweeted that she was “shocked to learn of the horrific events” and said her “thoughts are with all those affected and first responders”.
“The UK stands with the Thai people at this terrible time,” he said.