Thailand: Iranians' targets were Israeli diplomats

February 16, 2012 - 3:55 PM
Thailand Israel Attacks

Thai immigration officers escort detained Iranian Mohammad Kharzei, center, at the immigration headquarters in Bangkok on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012. Kharzei and two fellow Iranians arrested after accidentally setting off an explosives cache in Bangkok were planning to attack Israeli diplomats, Thailand's police chief said Thursday, the first confirmation by local officials that the group was plotting terror attacks in the Southeast Asian country.(AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK (AP) — 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.

Israel has strongly accused Iran of being behind the botched plot, a bombing in India and an attempted bombing in the former Soviet republic of Georgia this week, which Iran has denied.

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. The explosion Monday in New Delhi tore through an Israeli diplomatic vehicle, wounding the driver and a diplomat's wife, and an attempt was foiled the same day in Georgia.

Speaking in an interview with Israel Radio during a trip to Japan, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said: "It's clearer to more and more of the world that Iran, which is a veteran sponsor of terror, is trying to raise the bar even more, trying to harm diplomats around the world."

Israel's U.N. ambassador said Thursday the Security Council should condemn the attacks quickly.

"Israel expects it to issue a clear condemnation today, without any further delay or equivocation," Ambassador Ron Prosor said in a letter distributed by the Israeli mission.

"This campaign bears the unmistakable fingerprints of the Iranian regime and the highest echelons of the Hezbollah leadership," his letter said. "Their actions constitute a clear threat to the security and stability of Lebanon, to the Middle East, and to the many countries that have been targeted."

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said the Iranian-backed group had nothing to do with the Thailand plot, bombing in India or the attempted bombing in Georgia.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech Thursday to mark the 2008 death of Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hezbollah military commander.

There had been speculation that the attacks could be revenge for the death of Mughniyeh, who was killed by a bomb that ripped through his car in Damascus. Hezbollah and its primary patron, Iran, have blamed Israel for Mughniyeh's killing.

Israel has denied involvement.

"They will know when we will avenge martyr Mughniyeh. It will not be against soldiers or Israeli diplomats or civilians. This is insulting for Hezbollah," Nasrallah said, hinting that his group plans to kill senior officials.

Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said security had been stepped up for its diplomatic staff abroad. "Security is of the essence at times like this," Palmor said.

The plot in Bangkok was discovered when explosives in the men's rented house blew up by mistake Tuesday. One suspect, Mohammad Kharzei, was paraded before journalists Thursday, his apparently handcuffed hands covered by a dark sheet.

Prewpan said Kharzei had "partially confessed" and acknowledged knowing another suspect, Saeid Moradi, whose leg was sheared off by an explosion on a busy Bankgok street.

Surveillance video showed the three men 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 was being investigated for terrorism-related activities linked to the Bangkok blasts. Federal police there 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 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 where urea fertilizer and other materials that could be used to make bombs were being stored.

After that incident, Israel and the United States warned their citizens to be alert. The U.S. 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.

___

Associated Press writers Todd Pitman in Bangkok, Anita Snow at the United Nations, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.