A soldier angry over a property deal gone sour killed at least 29 people and wounded 57 in a rampage that spanned four locations in and around the northeastern Thai city of Nakhon Ratchasima before he was shot dead early Sunday.
Most of the victims were at the city's Terminal 21 shopping center, where the shooter held out against an overnight siege with an assault rifle and ammunition stolen from his army base.
"It was a personal conflict ... over a house deal," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters on Sunday from Nakhon Ratchasima after traveling there to meet wounded survivors. Mr. Chan-ocha added that the conflict was with a relative of the soldier's commanding officer.
The gunman, Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth Thomma was infuriated at a land deal brokered by his commander's mother-in-law, as far as authorities have been able to determine. She was another of his victims. He made Col. Anantarote Krasae his first victim before stealing guns from an army camp and heading to the mall, shooting wildly along the way at people inside and outside the building, reported The Associated Press.
While details have yet to be released in this case, experts in military matters identified serious deficiencies in how the weapons were safeguarded. That the gunman snatched three assault rifles and two machine guns from his army base and escaped in a stolen military vehicle “shows that the level of control over this base's armory was woefully insufficient in terms of manpower and access restriction," Michael Picard, research director of GunPolicy.org, told the Associated Press.
Thailand's worst mass shooting prompted soul searching in the southeast Asian country of 69 million, where the army has long styled itself as the protector of the nation and dominated politics for decades either overtly or from behind the scenes.
"This incident was unprecedented in Thailand," Mr. Chan-ocha told reporters as he gave a casualty count after visiting the victims in hospitals. By the end of the day, the toll had risen to 29 people killed. The death toll surpassed Thailand's last major attack on civilians, a 2015 bombing at a shrine in Bangkok killing 20 people that was allegedly carried out by human traffickers in retaliation for a crackdown on their network, reported The Associated Press.
"I hope this is the only one and the last incident and that it never happens again. No one wants this to happen. It could be because of this person's mental health in this particular moment," said Mr. Chan-ocha, according to The Associated Press
Led by police and soldiers, hundreds of shoppers fled the mall during the 12-hour standoff. Crouching low, they escaped in small groups, dazed and exhausted. At one point, armed forces emerged at a run carrying small children.
After most mall employees and shoppers were evacuated, a joint police and military team hunted down the gunman and killed him.
The province's governor, Wichien Chantaranochai, on Sunday night said a total of 29 people had been killed and 57 were wounded.
Closed-circuit TV 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.
According to local media, Mr. Thomma worked at an army base close to Nakhon Ratchasima, which is about 155 miles from the capital Bangkok. He was a sharp shooter and took many special courses on carrying out attacks, including planning ambushes, army sources said. Thai media reported he often posted photos of weapons on social media.
The killings began at around 3 p.m. on Saturday when the soldier opened fire in a house before moving to an army camp and then driving to the mall in a stolen Humvee.
At some point during the day, the soldier raided the army camp's weapons storage to arm himself, said Lt. General Thanya Kiatsarn, Commander of the Second Area Command.
Hours before he began shooting on Saturday, Mr. Thomma had posted on his Facebook account denouncing greedy people, before his account was shut down by the company.
Facebook 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 Thailand other than in the far south, where a decades-old insurgency persists.
Also known by the historical name Korat, Nakhon Ratchasima has a population of about 250,000. It is close to a national park popular for its wild elephants but the relatively poor northeastern region is one of the less visited areas for Thailand's tens of millions of tourists, according to The Associated Press.
More than 1,000 people mourned the victims Sunday night in a vigil led by Buddhist monks at the city's town square. They lit candles and chanted. Messages of sympathy for the latest tragedy were sent by several countries. The U.S. Embassy said it “stands with the people of Thailand, saddened by tragic events in Nakhon Ratchasima,” reported The Associated Press.
This story was reported by Reuters. Additional reporting by Athit Perawongmetha, Jiraporn Kuhakan, Prapan Chankaew, and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Nakhon Ratchasima; Panarat Thepgumpanat, Orathai Sriring, and Juarawee Kittisilpa in Bangkok; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by David Gregorio, Simon Cameron-Moore, Jacqueline Wong, Alex Richardson, and Philippa Fletcher. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.