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Botched Thai terror plot tied to Iran?
Three Iranians, in custody after bombs exploded prematurely, aren’t talking
BANGKOK — It began when three men blew up their house accidentally on Valentine's Day in Bangkok. It ended with a gory scene that looked more like Baghdad: A bloodied, would-be bomber with severed legs moaning on a glass-strewn sidewalk after another botched blast.
Last week's explosions in the Thai capital announced the apparent arrival of international terrorists in this Southeast Asian nation, revealing a suspected plot aimed against Israeli diplomats. Big questions remain about who was behind the plot, and why.
So far, three Iranian citizens have been detained in the case, though police say they have not revealed anything substantial under interrogation.
A Thai court issued an arrest warrant for an additional Iranian suspect this week, and on Tuesday, police were investigating the discovery of stickers plastered on Bangkok utility poles and billboards that may have marked routes for intended victims.
"There are many theories," government spokeswoman Thitima Chaisaeng said shortly after the Bangkok blasts.
Was it part of a covert tit-for-tat war with Iranians hitting back at Israel for their purported role in the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran? Were the assailants part of a global terrorism network? If they were professional assassins, why were they so inept?
The explosions Feb. 14 came one day after two other incidents in India and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, in which bombers tried to hit Israeli targets with so-called "sticky" bombs that attach magnetically to vehicles.
The suspicions that Iran is to blame "has undoubtedly exacerbated the already mounting tensions surrounding Iran's nuclear program and international efforts to curtail it," said Will Hartley, head of the Terrorism & Insurgency Center at IHS Jane's in London.
Iran has denied responsibility. Thai investigators, meanwhile, have been left to pick up the pieces and solve the riddle of what happened on Thai soil.
Police say a 31-year-old Iranian named Leila Rohani, who visited Thailand four times over the last year, paved the way for the operation by renting a two-story house in the Thai capital.
Ms. Rohani left Thailand on Feb. 5, and the three now-detained Iranians arrived several days later, each traveling on a 60-day tourist visa. They met in Pattaya, a beach town on the Gulf of Thailand known for its go-go bars.
The suspects included Mohammad Kharzei, 42; Masoud Sedaghatzadeh, 31; and Saeid Moradi, 28. Immigration police say that all three had visited Thailand before.
In Pattaya, the men checked into separate rooms at two different hotels and appeared to relax. For a couple of days, they hung out with several prostitutes, said Lt. Col. Noppon Kuldiloke, a senior immigration police investigator in southern Thailand.
A snapshot of the group during this period emerged last week. Published on the front page of the Bangkok Post after the explosions, a cellphone image taken by one of the prostitutes showed the Iranians at a Middle Eastern-themed restaurant.
Surrounded by hookah water pipes and a drink-filled table, Mr. Kharzei and Mr. Sedaghatzadeh cradled women in their arms, while Mr. Moradi reclined on a cushion.
The group drank and played pool together, according to the report, then headed to Bangkok to stay at the house Ms. Rohani had arranged for them.
Plot goes awry
Whatever the men were planning went awry on the afternoon of Feb. 14, when an explosives cache stored at the home ignited by mistake. The blast blew the roof off an entire front room, showering the driveway and a grass courtyard with debris.
A closed-circuit video camera installed on the street outside showed the Iranians emerge, one by one.
First out was an apparently barefoot Mr. Sedaghatzadeh, wearing shorts and sunglasses. Mr. Kharzei was next, carrying a large backpack strung over his shoulder.
By the time Mr. Moradi finally came out, about five minutes later, a small crowd had begun to gather. The bystanders recoiled in fear, backing up and turning away as Mr. Moradi strode past wearing a jacket and a black backpack. Blood appeared to drip from a wound on the left side of his face.
In each hand, he carried what appeared to be portable radios, possibly homemade "sticky" bombs.
As Mr. Moradi tried to flee, a red taxi passed and, for reasons that remain unclear, he dropped one of the bombs onto the road in front of it, blowing apart the vehicle's front end and wounding the driver and three other Thai bystanders.
Mr. Moradi turned onto a main road as police began moving in. One of them, Sgt. Panphum Rakkuson, said the Iranian pulled a rectangular-shaped box out of his backpack and threw it toward the officers.
"We were stunned and couldn't do anything but stand there," Sgt. Panphum said.
The bomb, though, got caught on something, hit the ground next to Mr. Moradi and exploded. The blast instantly shredded both of his legs below the knee.
Mr. Moradi is in police custody at a Bangkok hospital. Mr. Kharzei was arrested at the international airport that night, trying to board a flight to Iran. Mr. Sedaghatzadeh was detained the next day in Malaysia and may eventually be extradited to Thailand.
Thai courts have issued arrest warrants for all three men, as well as for Ms. Rohani and a fifth Iranian, Norouzi Shayan Ali Akbar, 57.
Mr. Akbar, with dark hair and a silver beard, was caught on closed-circuit TV footage leaving the Iranians' home the morning of the blast. Deputy national police chief Gen. Pansiri Prapawat said Mr. Akbar was en route to the airport, where he took a flight to Tehran.
Over the weekend, authorities seized a blue Honda motorcycle they say was purchased by Ms. Rohani in December and used by Mr. Sedaghatzadeh. It was found abandoned on a Bangkok street on Saturday.
The most damning evidence was found in the destroyed house: two more portable-radio bombs, each filled with one or two pounds of plastic explosives and ball-bearings.
The bombs had round, coin-like magnets on them, similar to the "sticky" bombs used against Israeli envoys in a foiled attack in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Feb. 13 and a blast in New Delhi the same day that injured four people, including a diplomat's wife.
Thai officials say the Bangkok plot was aimed at Israeli diplomats, too. Israel has gone further, alleging the evidence clearly points to Iran as being behind all three plots.
By Donald Lambro
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