Thai police on Saturday said an arrest warrant had been issued for an ethnic “Uighur” man over last month’s deadly Bangkok blast, for the first time identifying a suspect as a member of the Chinese minority group.
The announcement follows weeks of speculation over the motive and perpetrators of the unclaimed attack which killed 20 people, the majority ethnic Chinese visitors, at a religious shrine in the capital’s bustling downtown district on August 17.
Analysts had increasingly pointed towards militants from China‘s mostly Muslim Uighur minority — or their supporters — in revenge for Thailand’s forced deportation of 109 Uighur refugees to an uncertain future in China in July.
But up until Saturday Thai police had avoided attempts to directly connect the blast with the ethnic group or the kingdom’s major ally China.
“He is Uighur according to his passport,” national police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri told AFP, after authorities released a photo of the moustached and short-haired suspect identified as Abudusataer Abudureheman, or “Ishan”, of “Uighur” ethnicity and “Chinese” nationality.
Thai authorities are already holding in custody two foreign men, whose nationalities remain unconfirmed, over the attack. Ishan, who police say is 27 years old, is among another 11 suspects wanted by police.
Prawut said Ishan, who left Thailand a day before the blast and is wanted on the charge of “jointly possessing illegal military supplies”, belonged to the criminal network that police believe is responsible, but he was “not the mastermind” of the attack.
“I cannot confirm his whereabouts,” added the spokesman.
But in a statement released Saturday Thai immigration police said: “According to security agencies, Ishan is the one who plotted, ordered, and funded the attack.”
The statement also refers to the arrest warrant for Ishan mentioning his Uighur ethnicity.
The hunt for the perpetrators of the bomb blast has been characterised by confusing and at times contradictory statements from Thai officials.
Later Saturday police appeared to backtrack on Ishan’s ethnicity, releasing a new photo of him without it mentioned and a request asking media “to drop the word Uighur”.
Thailand’s police and ruling military junta have been at pains to rule out the idea that Chinese nationals were deliberately targeted in the attack and have avoided using the Uighur word in briefings to reporters about the suspects.
Uighurs have long-accused Beijing of religious and cultural repression with scores believed to have fled China‘s northwestern Xinjiang region — home to around 10 million of the group — in recent years, often heading to Turkey via Southeast Asia.
Thailand’s recent deportation of Uighurs had sparked violent protests in Turkey, where nationalist hardliners see the minority as part of a global Turkic-speaking family.
The warrant issued Saturday is the 12th over the unprecedented attack on the Thai capital which targeted a Hindu shrine particularly popular with Chinese tourists who believe prayers there bring good fortune.
One of the detained suspects, Yusufu Mieraili, was arrested last month with a Chinese passport registering his birthplace as Xinjiang.
But police did not confirm his ethnicity or nationality nor that of the other detained suspect, Adem Karadag, who was arrested at a Bangkok flat in possession of bomb-making materials and scores of fake Turkish passports.
Mieraili has confessed to handing over a backpack containing the four kilogramme bomb to another, unnamed, man who was later caught on CCTV wearing a yellow t-shirt and placing the bag at the busy shrine moments before the blast.
On Thursday Bangladesh police confirmed a suspect from the bombing network had arrived in Dhaka from Bangkok on August 16 before flying out to Beijing two weeks later.
But local Thai media reports have said the suspect flew on to Turkey rather than China.