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Key suspect in Thai bombing still on the run

BANGKOK -- A foreign suspect arrested at the border near Cambodia is unlikely to be the yellow-shirted man who planted the bomb at a Bangkok shrine nearly three weeks ago, police said Friday.

The definitive ruling out of the suspect -- identified as Mieraili Yusufu or Yusufu Meerailee -- implies that the person who bombed the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok on Aug. 17 remains at large despite two arrests and naming of seven other suspects in recent days.

The evening blast at the shrine popular among locals and tourists alike left 20 people dead and more than 120 injured in one of the most devastating acts of violence that the Thai capital had seen in decades.

Video of Bangkok blast shows suspect

Thai authorities have suggested that at least two of the suspects are possibly Turkish, boosting a theory that the bombing was to avenge Thailand's forced repatriation of more than 100 ethnic Uighurs to China in July. Uighurs are related to Turks, and Turkey is home to a large Uighur community.

National police spokesman Prawut Thavornsiri said DNA samples taken from the suspect did not match the DNA found on evidence that the bomber is believed to have left behind in a taxi, a banknote and a motorcycle taxi he took after leaving the pipe bomb under a bench at the open-air shrine when it was packed with worshippers.

"Now we don't have any evidence to say that he is the yellow-shirted man ... from the investigation maybe he is not (the yellow-shirted man)," Prawut told reporters.

"However, he is definitely involved with the bombing," he said

The police are certain of that because his DNA was found in the two apartments on the outskirts of Bangkok from where bomb making materials were also found, Prawut said.

"He was staying at both places," Prawut said. "This means that the man is involved in bomb-stocking places."

Another suspect who was arrested from one of the apartments on Saturday has also been ruled out as being the bomber. Police have identified seven other suspects for whom arrests warrants have been issued.

Also Friday, Thai authorities unveiled the centerpiece of the Erawan Shrine, which was slightly damaged in the blast.

Damage caused by a deadly blast is seen on the statue of Hindu god Brahma at the Erawan shrine in central Bangkok
Damage caused by a deadly blast is seen on the statue of Hindu god Brahma at the Erawan shrine in central Bangkok, Thailand, August 20, 2015. REUTERS

The swiftness with which the shrine has been repaired and reopened to the public was the latest bid to boost confidence among Bangkok's tourism and business communities.

Authorities have also intentionally avoided calling it an act of terrorism for fear of hurting Thailand's image.

"The most important issue for the country's image is to restore confidence about safety," Minister of Culture Vira Rojpojchanarat told reporters at Friday's ceremony. He said it was intended to "create confidence and raise the morale of (Thai) people and tourists."

The ministry's Fine Arts Department repaired 12 areas of the shrine's gleaming golden statue of the Hindu god Brahma that were damaged by the attack, notably on its four-faced head, on which a chin was blasted off, Vira said.

"Every day the police and national security are making progress on the case," Vira added.

At another raid on Thursday, authorities found "suspicious fluid in a barrel" that was being analyzed by explosives experts, said Prawut. But initial tests showed that the fluid "cannot be used as explosive components," military spokesman Winthai Suvaree said Friday.

On Thursday, the Turkish Embassy in Bangkok issued a statement saying it has not received confirmation from Thai authorities about the suspects' nationalities.

The Erawan Shrine is especially popular with Chinese tourists, feeding the speculation that it could have been targeted by people who believe the Uighurs are oppressed by China's government.

China has alleged that the Uighurs repatriated by Thailand included some who intended to join Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters in Syria. Thailand is believed to be a transit stop for Chinese Uighurs attempting to go to Turkey.

In another finding that could support a link to Uighurs, police said that Yusufu, the suspect cleared of being the bomber, was carrying a Chinese passport. The passport indicated he was from the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, but Thai authorities had not yet verified its authenticity, Prawut said. Xinjiang is the home of the Turkish-speaking Uighurs.

The other suspects include a Thai woman identified as Wanna Suansan and said to be married to a Turkish man. Both are being sought by Thai police.

Thai authorities have been careful not to state publicly that the case may be linked to the Uighurs. They have said that such speculation could affect international relations and hurt tourism.

Thai security officials have suggested the suspects are part of a human trafficking ring with a grudge against Thailand. However, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, known for his outspokenness, has stretched the theory to acknowledge it could have been a gang involved in smuggling Uighurs out of China.

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