NAKHON RATCHASIMA: A soldier who killed at least 20 people in an hours-long shooting rampage remained holed up inside a shopping mall on Sunday morning with an unknown number of people feared trapped inside, despite repeated attempts by armed police to flush the gunman out.
Volleys of gunfire rang out before dawn, hours after security services stormed the ground floor of the Terminal 21 mall in Muang district, where the gunman held out, armed with assault weapons stolen from the Surathampithak army barracks where he began his killing spree on Saturday afternoon.
As police entered the mall late Saturday night, scores of stunned and terrified shoppers fled a bloody rampage that the gunman had relayed via Facebook Live video before his account was shut down.
But it was unclear how many people remained inside the mall after police said they had “taken control” of the ground floor of the complex late Saturday.
An image from security video at Terminal 21 shows the attacker entering the shopping centre around 6pm Saturday.
Among the casualties was a police officer who took part in a raid around 3am in an attempt to force the gunman out, said Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, who was on the scene.
“He had been hit and unfortunately, he couldn’t make it,” said Mr Anutin.
Shocked evacuees recounted how a shopping day at the busy mall descended into horror as the gunman entered.
“It was like a dream. … I’m grateful I survived,” Sottiyanee Unchalee, 48, told AFP, explaining she hid in the washroom of a gym inside the mall as she heard the gunfire.
“I’m so sorry for those who died … (and) the people still trapped inside.”
Over 16 hours since the rampage began, authorities gave no fresh details on the movements of the attacker — a junior army officer identified as Sgt Maj Jakrapanth Thomma, 32.
But speculation mounted that the gunman may have retreated to a basement of the mall.
Automatic weapon fire rang out just before dawn as ambulances prepared to evacuate those wounded in the attack, the motives for which remain unclear. Local media reported that the attacker had been involved in a dispute with his superior officer, who was the first person to die.
As of Sunday morning, 31 people had been confirmed injured, with four seriously wounded, said Mr Anutin.
Crowds of people rushed to local hospitals to donate blood in response to health authorities’ request to help the injured.
The carnage began around 3.30pm Saturday when the soldier shot dead his commander and two others at the Surathampithak camp before stealing weapons and ammunition and fleeing in a stolen Humvee.
He fired at civilians along the route to Terminal 21, which was packed with shoppers celebrating the long weekend.
“The gunman used a machine gun and shot innocent victims resulting in many injured and dead,” said Pol Col Krissana Pattanacharoen, the police spokesman.
Defence Ministry spokesman Lt Gen Kongcheep Tantrawanit said late Saturday that 20 deaths had been confirmed.
Officers who stormed the building urged the gunman to surrender but they were met with angry shouts and more gunfire.
One exchange of gunfire at 3.30am on Sunday led to the death of a police officer and the injury of two colleagues. They were shot by an M60 machine gun.
Authorities said four more bodies were found on the ground floor, bringing the total number of deaths to 25. The toll was subsequently lowered to 20.
Local media showed video of the soldier getting out of a vehicle in front of the mall around 6pm Saturday and firing a series of shots, sending people running. Gunshots could be heard on the video.
The attacker then fired at a cooking gas cylinder, setting off an explosion and fire. Video clips showed people running away and cowering behind cars as thunderous shots rang out.
Troops from a special warfare unit were dispatched to the mall, where the attacker was said to be holding hostages on the fourth floor.
Police Crime Suppression Division commandos arrived from Bangkok by helicopter. Police also brought the man’s mother from Chaiyaphum province to Korat in hopes that she could persuade him to surrender.
The army commander, Gen Apirat Kongsompong, was also on the scene.
Around 8.30pm, it was reported that special forces troops were preparing to “engage” the shooter inside the shopping centre. But the immediate focus was on safely evacuating the hundreds of shoppers and workers who were still trapped inside.
Police said around 11.30pm that they had taken control of floors G, 1, 2 and 3 in the mall.
The attacker streamed his earlier activity at the mall on Facebook Live and posted a selfie showing him holding a rifle. “Tired, I can barely move my fingers,” he said on a video posted at 7.20pm.
The Facebook page was taken offline a few moments later. Facebook later confirmed that it had removed the account and would also take down “any other violating content related to this attack”.
“Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by this tragedy in Thailand. There is no place on Facebook for people who commit this kind of atrocity, nor do we allow people to praise or support this attack,” a Facebook representative said in a statement.
Other text messages posted before the page was taken down included “Should I surrender?” and “Oh shit, I’ve got cramps in my hand.” An earlier post said, “Nobody can avoid death”, and another one read, “Being rich from taking advantage of others, do they think they can use money in hell?”
Lt Gen Thanya Kriatisarn, commander of the Second Army Region, identified the slain commander as Col Anantharot Krasae, 48. A 63-year-old woman was also killed at the camp, along with another soldier.
Suspected shooter Jakrapanth Thomma is shown on his Facebook page.