BANGKOK, Thailand — A bomb explosion that appeared to target a popular Hindu shrine in central Bangkok killed at least 18 people Monday and injured 117 more, according to a hospital in the Thai capital.
Twelve victims died at the scene, and six others died later at the Erawan Medical Emergency Center, officials said.
The hospital’s death toll conflicted with that of several media outlets, including The Nation television and Channel 7, both of which reported 27 deaths.
Thai Public Broadcasting Service reported a death toll of 16, citing national police Chief Somyot Pumpanmuang as its source.
Foreigners are among the injured, Maj Gen. Weerachon Sukhontapatipak, a Thai government spokesman, told CNN.
He had no specifics, but Somyot said on state TV that Chinese tourists who had traveled to Thailand from the Philippines had been killed. The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok later confirmed the report, telling China’s state-run Xinhua that three nationals had died in the blast, while another 15 Chinese tourists were injured, some seriously.
Hong Kong’s Immigration Department reported that three residents were among the injured.
It’s too early to say who orchestrated the attack, Somyot said.
Suspicious items turn out to be garbage bags
Police initially sealed off the scene near the popular Erawan Shrine because, they said at the time, a second bomb in the area remained active and needed to be defused. Bomb squad members in blast suits responded, and an officer announced over a loudspeaker, “The situation is still not safe. Please all stay back. There might be another bomb in the area.”
But Somyot said later that the suspicious items were not bombs.
“They are just garbage bags,” he said. “Our (explosives) team is still working at the site, and we will close down the traffic around the area until noon tomorrow.”
The first bomb — a 3-kilogram “improvised device” — was the only one, police said.
Steve Herman, a correspondent and bureau chief for Voice of America, said he thought it was thunder when the explosion first ripped through central Bangkok.
He saw six bodies under sheets inside the shrine and one outside of it, Herman told CNN.
Another reporter, The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller, said body parts were scattered around the area. He estimated that several hundred military and police officials, some of them using dogs, were scouring the scene for more bombs.
Maj. Gen. Sriwara Ransibrahmanakul told CNN that security was being tightened throughout the city. Asked how many security forces had been deployed, he replied, “As much as we have.”
Somyot, the police chief, told Reuters that the blast came from an “improvised device” on a motorcycle, according to the news wire’s Bangkok correspondent, Amy Sawitta Lefevre. Police have not officially stated whether they believe the bomb had a specific target.
The Bangkok Post reported the bomb, which detonated just after 7 p.m., was fastened to a utility pole in front of the Erawan Shrine.
Busy area for tourists, commuters
The blast didn’t cause rampant panic, as some bystanders were milling around peacefully and a family apparently unaware of the explosion was enjoying a meal at a nearby McDonald’s, freelance journalist Adam Ramsey told CNN.
Schools are out, and many in the city were commuting home at the time of the blast, so the explosion at a busy intersection in a tourist area carried the potential for significant casualties.
Along with hotels, there are numerous shopping centers in the area, Google Maps shows, including the Platinum Fashion Mall and Central World, reportedly one of the largest shopping malls in the world. The city’s Skytrain rumbles nearly overhead.
Though Buddhism is the predominant religion in Thailand, there are many Hindu shrines in Bangkok, and the Erawan Shrine is the best known among them, according to an English-language website providing news and tourism information about the country.
Streams of people pay respects at the shrine from early morning until late at night. Thais and foreign visitors make ceremonial offerings, ranging from floral garlands and fruits to teakwood elephants in the hope their wishes will be fulfilled, according to another tourist site.
The shrine houses a golden statue of Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. The shrine is so revered that Thanakorn Pakdeepol, a mentally ill man, was beaten to death in 2006 by two bystanders after they witnessed him vandalizing the statue.
Thousands of worshippers visit the site each day, praying for everything from good health to sports results. They light incense sticks and wai (bow slightly with palms pressed together) to each of the four faces of the statue. For extra luck, worshippers pay respect and money to the shrine’s Thai dancers.
Many whose prayers are answered return to express gratitude to this revered Thai shrine.