By Panu Wongcha-um
NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand (Reuters) – A Thai soldier who has killed at least 21 people in a shooting rampage was thought to be holed up in the basement of a shopping mall in northeastern Thailand on Sunday and security forces were closing in on him, a police officer said.
The officer said nine civilians had been evacuated from the shopping mall and security forces were checking whether any remained there.
“The perpetrator is still in the basement and it doesn’t look as though he has hostages. We are getting close to him,” said the officer who did not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to media.
The killings began at around 3 p.m. (0800 GMT) on Saturday when the soldier opened fire in a house before moving to an army camp and then to the mall in Nakhon Ratchasima in northeastern Thailand, posting messages on Facebook as he went.
Police have identified the suspected shooter as 32-year-old Jakrapanth Thomma.
Overnight, one member of the security forces was killed and at least two others wounded in a raid into the Terminal 21 mall to try to stop the gunman.
“We are doing our best. You can see that all our senior officers of the government have been assigned here,” Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told reporters at the scene. “All steps are being taken with precautions so that we can minimize the damage as much as we can.”
More than 30 people have been wounded.
Police closed off streets around the mall and kept journalists behind a security cordon.
Thai media said the suspected shooter had worked at an army base close to Nakhon Ratchasima, which is about 250 km (155 miles) from the capital Bangkok. Before the attack, Jakrapanth had posted on his Facebook account that he was out for vengeance — but he did not say for what.
‘IT APPEARS HE WENT MAD’
“We don’t know why he did this. It appears he went mad,” Defense Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanit told Reuters.
Overnight, soldiers and police stormed into the mall and escorted hundreds of trapped people to safety.
“It was frightening because I could hear the occasional gunshot … we waited a long time for the police to come and help us, many hours.” said Suvanarat Jirattanasakul, 27, her voice trembling after she emerged.
The mall was busy with shoppers on a long weekend for the Buddhist Makha Bucha holiday.
CCTV footage from inside the mall posted on social media showed the gunman dressed in black and wearing a mask, his gun slung over his shoulder with no sign of other people around.
Facebook (O:) said it had removed the suspect’s account.
“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.
Major shootings are rare in the Southeast Asian country other than in the far south, where a decades-old insurgency persists.
Nakhon Ratchasima is one of the biggest cities in northeastern Thailand, an island of relative prosperity in a rice growing area that is one of the poorest parts of the country of 69 million people.
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