A Thai commando has been killed as security forces desperately try to capture a rogue soldier who has killed at least 21 people in a gun rampage inside a shopping mall – where he is still holed up more than 12 hours after he first struck.
Sergeant Major Jakrapanth Thomma, 32, is hiding out in the Terminal 21 shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima, a city 155 miles northeast of Bangkok, after opening fire on terrified civilians this afternoon.
He began his murderous rampage at his barracks, where he executed his commanding officer along with two other soldiers, before commandeering a humvee and tearing away from the scene.
As he drove along the motorway toward the shopping centre, Thomma opened fire on civilians at a house and a Buddhist temple before making his way inside the mall – where he was caught on CCTV stalking the corridors.
He is now locked in a siege with police, who have helped hundreds of people escape after storming the shopping centre and escorting terrified shoppers away from the scene.
One member of Thailand’s security forces was killed and two were wounded early on Sunday in a raid on the shopping mall – in which a series of explosions and more gunfire could be heard.
Thai media said the suspect’s mother was being taken to the mall to try to persuade him to give up. As she was led to a police car, she was heard saying ‘why did he do it?’ with tears in her eyes.
The shooter is thought to be holed up in the basement and is exchanging gunfire with officers as they try to bring his rampage – in which he also injured 31 and shot a doctor helping an injured person – to an end.
Several volleys of gunfire were tonight heard ringing out from inside the besieged mall where the gunman is holed up. Two more casualties were seen being taken out of the building after the repeated gunfire.
There were fears the shooter could try to hide in the panicked crowd. Images posted on social media showed people sprinting across the mall car parks and walkways once they were freed.
Police from the Crime Suppression Division urged fleeing shoppers to ‘raise their hands’ and identify themselves on the ground floor ‘and authorities will evacuate you’.
Hospitals across the country braced for a grim night ahead as residents flooded the hospitals to give blood and search for relatives.
A brave lone policeman is among those thought to have entered the shopping mall to search for the shooter. Video shows him holding a semi-automatic handgun as he stalked the empty floors of the building.
Earlier Thomma relayed his shooting spree through Facebook posts which charted the attack from army barracks in the city to the mall.
The gunman posted photos of himself online dressed in full tactical gear and holding a rifle which he smuggled from the army compound’s arsenal.
He also posed for a photograph in front of the burning shopping centre with reports suggesting the blaze was caused by a gas canister that exploded when it was hit with a bullet.
Thomma also wrote several posts on his Facebook page including ‘should I surrender’ and ‘no one can escape death’.
In one Facebook video – since deleted – the assailant filmed from an open jeep saying, ‘I’m tired… I can’t pull my finger anymore’ and making a trigger symbol with his hand.
Thomma also posted a picture of a revolver with the captions ‘It is time to get excited’ and and ‘nobody can avoid death’. The gunman seized weapons from the army arsenal before embarking on his shooting spree.
Local media earlier showed footage of the soldier getting out of a car in front of the shopping mall and firing a series of shots, sending people running. People fled while at least one fire roared and what appeared to be the sound of automatic gunfire filled the air.
The mall was busy with shoppers on a long weekend for the Buddhist Makha Bucha holiday.
CCTV footage from inside showed the gunman dressed in black and wearing a mask, his gun slung over his shoulder with no sign of other people around.
‘We don’t know why he did this. It appears he went mad,’ said defence ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanit.
A volunteer rescue worker recounted a bloody scene of horror after his team carried four corpses to the hospital.
‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’ Peerapong Chatadee said. ‘I just feel so sad. He is a solider he should not have fired at unarmed people.’
The Thai Health Minister told reporters around 10 people were already in hospital in a ‘critical condition.’
Kongcheep said at least 21 people had been killed and it was not clear whether the gunman had taken hostages in the mall.
‘It’s not known how many are still inside,’ he said.
The bloodshed began on Saturday afternoon when Jakrapanth shot three people – among them at least one soldier – at a senior officer’s house and then at nearby army barracks.
‘He stole an army vehicle and drove into the town centre,’ police Lieutenant-Colonel Mongkol Kuptasiri.
There the gunman used weapons stolen from the military arsenal to bring carnage to a town centre, walking into the Terminal 21 mall – an airport-themed shopping centre filled with colorful Lego sculptures, a merry-go-round and huge replicas of landmarks from around the world.
He ‘used a machine gun and shot innocent victims resulting in many injured and dead,’ police spokesman Krissana Pattanacharoen said.
Jakrapanth’s motive remains unclear.
But throughout the day he posted images of himself and wrote several posts on his Facebook page as the attack unfolded, including ‘should I surrender?’ and ‘no one can escape death’.
One video from a bystander showed a man slumped at the wheel of a car in a pool of blood. It was unclear if he was among the dead.
A woman interviewed by Thailand’s Channel One television said she had heard gunshots when she was at the shopping mall and hid in a clothing store with other people before escaping.
The man who was identified by police as the suspect had posted on his Facebook page earlier in the day that ‘Death is inevitable for everyone.’
He also posted a picture of what appeared to be him holding a gun.
‘The gunman used a machine gun and shot innocent victims resulting in many injured and dead,’ a police spokesperson said earlier this afternoon.
In the initial stages, people were unsure what was happening.
Nattaya Nganiem, who shot a video from outside the mall in which gunshots were heard, recounted what she experienced.
‘We just left the mall after we had our meal. While we were in our car on the opposite side, we heard a loud sound and then we could see people starting to run out. First I saw a woman run out from the mall hysterically. Then a motorcycle rider in front of her just ran and left his motorcycle there.
‘I thought, what’s happening? Then we heard several gunshots. The motorcycle guy probably had seen the gunman from where he was. We couldn’t see the gunman but we could hear the sound of the gun. It was terrifying.
‘We were just inside having dinner and my child was getting unusually restless, that’s why we left, otherwise, we would have been stuck inside there. I can’t believe this is happening in my hometown. I mean, this shopping mall, we go there almost every other day. ‘
Once she got home and learned what had happened, she fainted, she said.
Nakhon Ratchasima, also known as Korat, is about 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast of the Thai capital, Bangkok. It is a hub for Thailand’s relatively poorer and rural northeastern region.
One officer said the soldier had been involved in an argument about a land deal and shot two people who were involved, another soldier and a woman.
The man then took a gun from the base where he is stationed outside the city and drove to the mall, shooting at people along the way.
The mall was shut down and the street outside was closed while authorities attempted to arrest the gunman.
Facebook, where Thomma’s selfies first appeared, sent its condolences to the victims and their families and said there was no place on Facebook for anyone who commits or supports such atrocities.
‘We have removed the gunman’s accounts from our services and will work around the clock to remove any violating content related to this attack as soon as we become aware of it,’ it said.
Hashtags #KoratShootingRampage and #SaveKorat were trending on social media in Thailand.
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul asked on his Facebook page for blood donations at four hospitals in the vicinity of Korat.
Thai army chief Apirat Kongsompong issued an order for local army commanders to rush to the scene and investigate.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha expressed condolences to the families of those killed, a government spokeswoman said.
Terminal 21 Korat is part of a small chain of Thai shopping centers run by Bangkok-based property developer LH Mall & Hotel Co. The malls feature floors modeled after major cities around the world.
The size of the mall posed a challenge for security forces as they tried to capture the gunman. It consists of seven main retail floors, including one below ground level, and scores of shops and restaurants. It also houses a movie theater on the top floor.
Many malls in Thailand, including Terminal 21’s namesake in Bangkok, have metal detectors and security cameras at entrances manned by uniformed but unarmed security guards. Checks on those entering are often cursory at best.
Gun violence is not unheard of in Thailand – but such major shootings are rare in the Southeast Asian country other than in the far south, where a decades-old insurgency persists.
Firearms can be obtained legally, and many Thais own guns. Mass shootings are rare, though there are occasional gun battles in the far south of the country, where authorities have for years battled a long-running separatist insurgency.
Several shootings at courthouses late last year also renewed concern about gun violence in the Southeast Asia country.
In one high-profile case, two lawyers were shot dead by a clerk at a court in the east of the country during a hearing over a land dispute.
Nakhon Ratchasima, commonly known as Korat, is one of the biggest cities in northeastern Thailand, a rice growing area and one of the poorest regions in the country of 69 million.