Pattani (Thailand) (AFP) - A car bomb exploded in a nightlife district in Thailand's deep south, killing one and wounding more than 30, in a nation already on edge after a bombing spree that targeted tourist towns.
The latest blast struck late Tuesday outside a hotel in Pattani, one of three Muslim-majority southern provinces battered by a long-running and shadowy rebellion against the Buddhist-majority state.
"So far there is one killed and more than 30 injured," Major General Thanongsak Wangsupa, Pattani provincial police commander, told AFP Wednesday. "The hotel building was considerably damaged."
Pictures showed fires burning on the road outside the hotel's shattered facade, with police picking through the rubble. Nearby a car was destroyed, with karaoke bars, massage parlours and restaurants also damaged.
Pattani is not popular with tourists, but analysts said the militants were sending a message after coordinated bomb and arson attacks struck multiple resort towns on August 11-12, leaving four dead and 37 injured including Europeans.
Those attacks heightened concerns Thailand's southern insurgency may have spread north after years of stalled peace talks -- a theory the country's junta has downplayed given the importance of tourism to the economy.
The entertainment district hit by the car bomb is one of only a handful in the restive south, offering bars, a disco and prostitution, said Don Pathan, a security analyst based in the region.
"It's the type of place that society around here frowns upon," he said.
The southern rebels focus most of their attacks on security officers and symbols of the state, but they do occasionally strike nightlife venues.
"The campaign against social evil is not very high on the agenda of the insurgents here. Their strategy right now is to make the area as ungovernable as possible," Pathan told AFP.
Speaking to reporters after the Pattani hotel blast, Thailand's deputy junta leader Prawit Wongsuwan again dismissed any link between the tourist town attacks earlier this month and the southern insurgency.
He also said any negotiations with the rebels would be shelved until violence subsides.
"All violence must first stop before we can set the terms of reference for talks. They need to show their sincerity," he said.
The 90-kilogramme bomb was hidden inside a stolen hospital vehicle and detonated shortly after a smaller explosive at a nearby bar. The first blast did not cause any injuries.
"The car was parked in front of the hotel lobby for a few minutes after first bomb went off and people were not suspicious because it was a hospital vehicle," said Colonel Pramote Prom-in, a southern army spokesman.
The so-called "double tap" tactic is often adopted by the southern insurgents and was used in many of the recent attacks on tourist sites further north.
A staff member at Pattani's local hospital said 32 people were injured, five of them critically. All are Thai nationals, the worker added, asking not to be named.
- Violent history -
Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian militant groups, said car bombs are a standard insurgent tactic but Tuesday night's blast was the largest he had seen in recent months.
"They're clearly trying to send a signal that with the post-Mothers' Day bombing spree they are able to hit major urban areas," he told AFP, referring to the recent attacks on tourist sites that he believes were the work of the insurgents.
Most embassies warn nationals against all travel to Pattani because of the long-running rebellion.
Thailand annexed the culturally distinct zone bordering Malaysia over a century ago.
Near-daily shootings and roadside bombs have left more than 6,500 dead since 2004, most of them civilians. But the violence has largely remained local and rarely makes international headlines.
The rebels never claim their attacks but factions are known to be frustrated with their lack of progress after more than a decade of fighting.
The region is awash with state troops who rights groups accuse of widespread abuses, including torturing detainees and extrajudicial killings.
After months of relative calm that saw violence dip to a record low last year, there has been a palpable increase in attacks over the past few months, particularly around a recent referendum on a new charter penned by the junta that seized power in 2014.
The charter, which critics say will make Thailand less democratic, was approved by a majority of voters but rejected in the three insurgency-wracked provinces.