BANGKOK: Three Iranians detained after accidentally setting off explosives in Bangkok were planning to attack Israeli diplomats, Thailand’s top policeman said Thursday in the first confirmation by local officials that the group was plotting attacks in Thailand.
The allegation came after days of strong accusations by Israel that Iran was behind the botched plot as well as two others in India and the former Soviet republic of Georgia this week. Iran has denied the charges.
Citing the similarity of bombs used in New Delhi and Tbilisi, national police chief Gen. Prewpan Dhamapong said that Thai authorities now "know for certain that (the target) was Israeli diplomats."
"This issue was about individuals and the targets were specific," he said. "This was something personal."
Israel has accused Iran of waging a covert campaign of state terror and has threatened military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran has blamed the Jewish state for the recent killings of Iranian atomic scientists and has denied responsibility for all three bomb plots, including an explosion Monday in New Delhi that tore through an Israeli diplomatic vehicle, wounding the driver and a diplomat’s wife, and a foiled attempt the same day in Georgia.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday it has stepped up security for diplomats posted overseas.
The plot in Bangkok was discovered Tuesday only by accident, when explosives stored in a house occupied by several Iranian men blew up by mistake.
One of the Iranians, Mohammad Kharzei, was paraded before journalists Thursday wearing a striped short-sleeve shirt, his apparently handcuffed hands covered by a dark sheet.
Prewpan said Kharzei had "partially confessed" and had acknowledged knowing one of the other suspects, Saeid Moradi, whose leg was sheered off by an explosive he was carrying as he fled police in the Thai capital’s busy Sukhumvit Road area.
Surveillance video released by police already links the suspects: it shows them leaving their destroyed house just after the first blast. Moradi was the last to exit, and as he walked out with a heavy backpack over his shoulder, a small crowd that had begun to gather backed away, clearly terrified.
Kharzei, grim-faced, did not speak as he stood before reporters, but Prewpan described him as "stressed out" and another official said he was having trouble eating.
The third Iranian, Masoud Sedaghatzadeh, was detained in Malaysia and the country’s federal police spokesman, Ramli Yoosuf, said he was being investigated for terrorism-related activities linked to the Bangkok blasts.
The official could not say whether Sedaghatzadeh would be extradited to Thailand.
A Bangkok court has approved arrest warrants for all three suspects, as well as an Iranian woman named Leila Rohani who rented the destroyed house. However, Rohani has left Thailand and is now in Tehran, according to the top immigration police official, Lt. Gen. Wiboon Bangthamai.
All four now face criminal charges including possession of explosives, attempted murder, attempted murder of a policeman and causing explosions that damaged property. Prewpan said he believed there already was enough evidence to prosecute them.
The Israeli ambassador to Thailand, Itzhak Shoham, declined to comment on reports his staff had been specifically targeted. He said the Israeli Embassy was open and functioning as normal.
Shoham told The Associated Press earlier this week, however, that the similarity of the bombs found in Bangkok and New Delhi had led Israel to believe the plots were linked.
Prewpan also said that two homemade "sticky" bombs found at the blast site Tuesday matched the devices planted on Israeli diplomatic cars in India and Georgia a day earlier.
Thailand’s acknowledgment that terror attacks were being planned on its soil stood in contrast to its denials of that last month, when police arrested a Lebanese-Swedish man with alleged links to Hezbollah. At the time, authorities insisted Thailand was only being used as a staging ground for attacks, but was not the target. The man led police to a warehouse near Bangkok packed with more than 8,800 pounds (4,000 kilograms) of urea fertilizer and other materials that could be used to make bombs.
After that incident, Israel and the United States warned their citizens to be alert. The US Embassy said foreign terrorists may have been looking to attack tourist areas in Bangkok and Thai media reported the attacks were aimed at Israeli targets, including the Israeli Embassy.
Thai officials say it is not clear if the two incidents are connected.
On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the violence.
"If this aggression isn’t halted, ultimately it will spread to many other countries," Netanyahu said in Israel’s parliament Wednesday. He convened his Security Cabinet to discuss terrorism against Israel and "Iran’s involvement in repeated attempts to attack Israeli targets," his office said.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast called the allegations baseless and said Israel was trying to damage his country’s relations with Thailand and fuel conspiracy theories. Iran has blamed the Jewish state for the recent killings of Iranian atomic scientists.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report.