BANGKOK — An alleged terrorist plot aimed at Bangkok that sparked urgent warnings of danger from the United States and Israel has been thwarted, Thai police said Saturday.
National Police Chief Gen. Priewpan Damapong said the alleged bombing scheme was called off by the alleged plotters — two Lebanese men said to be linked to pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants. One man was in custody for questioning, and the other was at large.
The U.S. Embassy had circulated a warning Friday that there was a "real and credible" terrorist threat against Americans in Bangkok, and Israel issued a similar warning to its citizens. Thai authorities confirmed being informed of a plot, and said they were pursuing the missing suspect.
The warnings came during heightened tension over U.S. and Israeli responses to the prospect that Iran is going forward with developing nuclear weapons.
Priewpan's remarks came less than 12 hours after police held a hastily arranged news conference late Friday night in which they circulated a sketch of the missing suspect, with a call for the public to help track him down. They said the man in custody told them the plot was supposed to be carried out between Jan. 13 and 15.
Thailand seemed to have been caught by surprise by the publicity over the alleged plot, which officials said they had been informed about before New Year's. The U.S. Embassy warning was the first public notice of the affair, and Defense Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapa said Thai authorities did not release news of the alleged plot because of fears that it would hurt the tourist industry and cause panic.
Thailand is acutely sensitive to news that could affect its huge tourism industry, one of the country's biggest revenue earners.
Foreign Minister Surapong Tovijakchaikul said Saturday that he was greatly disappointed the United States and other countries had issued travel warnings to their citizens over terrorism risks without consulting the Foreign Ministry, which he said is the normal procedure.
Surapong said such actions adversely affect Thailand's tourism industry, its image and confidence among other nations, and that the ministry would seek an explanation from the countries involved and consider measures to remedy the problem.
Thailand also seeks to keep friendly relations with Iran. Although Thailand is firmly pro-American, Iran is a major trading partner, especially as a top market for Thai rice.
Iran sees possible U.S. complicity in a series of assassinations of its nuclear experts — the latest coming Wednesday, when scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was killed by a bomb attached to his car by a passing bicyclist.
Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militant group, is the most potent military force in Lebanon, far stronger than even the national army. It is backed mainly by Iran and Syria.
Thailand's Metropolitan Police spokesman Piya Utayo said Friday night that the man in custody told police the pair had arrived before New Year's with plans to stage a bombing attack.
Priewpan, the police chief, however, said Saturday that the man — a Swedish national of Lebanese origin identified as Attiris Hussein — told police an attack had been prepared but was called off when the authorities learned about it.
Priewpan said the suspect had been questioned by Thai authorities after being detained at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport as he was about to leave Thailand. Police can hold him for questioning under immigration law for 60 days before deportation.
Priewpan said police would not file any charges against him because he had not committed any crime.
Thailand has rarely been a target for foreign terrorists, although a domestic Muslim insurgency in the country's south has involved bombings of civilian targets.
In 1994, an attempt to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok was abandoned when the driver of a truck packed with a massive car bomb fled after a minor traffic accident. Several Iranians were arrested in connection with the attempt — which some terrorism experts blamed on Hezbollah — but all were eventually released.
There have been several reported plots against the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok in the past two decades, but no attacks.
Associated Press writer Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.