Seven hurt as car bomb hits Thai tourist island of Samui

A car bomb on the Thai resort island of Samui has wounded seven people, including an Italian girl, police said Saturday, in a further blow to the country's tarnished reputation as a top tourist destination.

The bomb, packed inside a Mazda pick-up truck with false number plates, was detonated remotely by mobile phone late Friday in the underground car park of the Central Festival mall, sending late-night shoppers running for safety.

Police said the car had been stolen on March 31 from Yala, one of Thailand's three southernmost Muslim-majority provinces that have been scorched by a 10-year insurgency in which more than 6,300 people have been killed.

"It's a car bomb but we cannot confirm what type of explosive materials they used," Thai national police spokesman Lieutenant General Prawut Thavornsiri told AFP.

"The car used was a Mazda pick-up truck stolen from Yala," he added, without specifying whether the blast was believed to be linked to the conflict hundreds of kilometres (miles) away.

Six Thais and a 12-year-old Italian girl were treated for minor injuries and were all released from hospital, according to Poonsak Sophonsasmorong of the island's disaster prevention office.

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Thai police have previously been accused of leaping to conclusions in the immediate aftermath of high-profile incidents.

They came under fire during the probe into the murder of two British backpackers on Koh Tao island last year for bungling the initial investigation and leaking erroneous information to the media.

- Scouring the debris -

Bomb squad experts scoured the debris through Saturday for clues about who might be behind the attack, which comes as Thailand's junta tries to reassure tourists about the kingdom's safety as a holiday destination following a coup last May.

Samui is a wildly popular tourist island in the Gulf of Thailand. Around 20 million visitors flock to Thailand each year and tourism is a mainstay of the economy.

"It was a big massive explosion. I was scared," Hakan Genisol, a Turkish real estate manager on the island told AFP.

Genisol, who was in the supermarket when the blast occurred, said he was worried the bomb could negatively impact tourism.

"We are scared it affects that people change their mind for the destination," he said.

Although the military lifted martial law last week, it maintained sweeping security powers citing the threat of political unrest after a spate of small, symbolic bombings in Bangkok apparently in protest against junta rule.

Thailand's southern provinces bordering Malaysia, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) south of Samui, have long been home to a festering insurgency pitting Muslim rebels against security forces.

A spokesman for the military's Internal Security Operation Command said there had been no intelligence to suggest the rebels were planning to expand their sphere of operations.

But "it's possible insurgents with bomb-making skills were hired to attack for other purposes", Colonel Banphot Phunphien told reporters, without elaborating.

Small bomb attacks and shootings are fairly frequent across Thailand, where the rule of law is weak, and are often attributed to disputes over business, local politics or criminal activities.

The junta has blamed anti-coup groups for a series of small bomb attacks in Bangkok this year, using them to justify the imposition of martial law and the tough new security policy that replaced it on April 1.

- Unexpected development -

But if any link to the unrest in the south is established, it would be an unexpected development for what has thus far been a highly localised conflict.

The fighting there remains off the international radar despite the near daily bombings, shootings and occasional beheadings.

Experts say that is in part because the insurgents, who are seeking greater autonomy, have not launched attacks in Thailand's better-known tourist areas outside of the south.

But deadly blasts have occasionally struck Hat Yai, the main commercial city in the south, which is popular with Malaysian tourists.

Thailand's junta says it is trying to reboot peace talks with a patchwork of Muslim militant groups from the culturally distinct south, which was annexed by Thailand a century ago.

But no date for the talks has been announced, while rights groups say killings of civilians and abuses by security forces are continuing.

Seven Thai security officials face murder charges after four unarmed Muslim men were gunned down in a botched raid on a remote farm last month in Pattani province, part of the insurgency-wracked south.

While the rebels eschew publicity, they have previously called for increased autonomy as well as an amnesty for their fighters.

Morning news break - April 12