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Deadly bombing hits popular Bangkok shrine

Last Updated Aug 17, 2015 1:14 PM EDT

BANGKOK -- A bomb exploded at a popular shrine in central Bangkok during evening rush hour Monday, killing at least 18 people, injuring more than 100 and leaving body parts strewn across the streets of a neighborhood full of five-star hotels and upscale shopping malls, officials said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blast, which caused the worst carnage of any single attack in recent memory in the Thai capital.

The bomb exploded inside the Erawan Shrine, and another undetonated bomb was found near the complex, said Maj. Gen. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, a spokesman for Thailand's ruling junta. The shrine is a tourist landmark also popular with Thais.

National police chief Somyot Poompummuang said 18 were confirmed killed by the blast. At least 117 people were injured in the blast and were taken to several hospitals around the city, according to the government's Emergency Center. According to Reuters, local media is reporting at least 4 foreigners were among 27 people killed in the blast, although the police chief downplayed those reports.

"We are now looking for another 2 to 3 bombs as we have found one suspicious object," National Police Chief Prawut Thawornsiri said to Reuters. "There could be another explosion, so we have blocked off the crime scene and are asking bystanders to move back," he said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bomb, which police said was made from a pipe wrapped in cloth. The Thai capital has been relatively peaceful since a military coup ousted a civilian government in May last year after several months of sometimes violent political protests against the previous government.

The dead included Chinese and a Filipino, Somyot said.

"Those who have planted this bomb are cruel. They aim to kill because everyone knows that at 7 p.m. the shrine is crowded with Thais and foreigners. Planting a bomb there means they want to see a lot of dead people," he said.

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Explosive Ordnance Disposal officers enter the Erawan Shrine after an explosion in Bangkok, Monday, Aug. 17, 2015.

AP Photo/Sackchai Lalit

CCTV footage showed people fleeing down the street away from the site of the explosion, as well as a huge fireball.

The explosion took place at the Rajprasong intersection, which was the center of many contentious political demonstrations in recent years.

"We still don't know for sure who did this and why," Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon told reporters. "We are not sure if it is politically motivated, but they aim to harm our economy and we will hunt them down." Anusit Kunakorn, secretary of the National Security Council, said Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief, was closely monitoring the situation.

Thailand's capital has been relatively peaceful since a military coup ousted a civilian government in May last year after several months of sometime violent political protests against the previous government. However, there has been some tension in recent months as the ruling junta has made clear it may not hold elections until 2017 and wants a constitution that will allow some type of emergency rule to take the place of an elected government.

Car bombs are almost unknown in Bangkok, but have been used in southern Thailand, where a Muslim separatist insurgency has been flaring for several years.

The last major bombings in Bangkok occurred on New Year's Eve at the end of 2006, when a series of bombs at celebrations around town killed at least three people and wounded dozens. Those bombings occurred just three months after a military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and there was speculation that his supporters carried out the attacks in revenge. However, the bombings were never solved.

The 2006 coup set off a battle for power among Thaksin's supporters and opponents, sometimes in the form of violent protests.

Protesters from both sides sometimes faced armed attacks by unknown groups, with more than 90 people killed in 2010 during pro-Thaksin demonstrations that were quashed by the army. The focus of the 2010 protests was the same intersection where Monday's blast took place, a bustling area in the heart of Bangkok's main shopping district. Several five-star hotels are nearby.

In March this year, several arrests were made in connection with a grenade that was tossed at Bangkok's Criminal Court. Those detained were apparently sympathizers of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement. Critics of the current military government say some of the bombings may have been carried out by the junta to justify its continued suppression of basic rights and liberties. The government denied that.

In April, a car bomb exploded at a shopping mall on the resort island of Samui, injuring seven people. The motive was unclear, though the government suggested it was linked to politics.