BANGKOK (AP) — Seventeen people detained after last week's bombings and arson in southern Thailand are being charged with belonging to a criminal gang, but authorities have not publicly linked them to the attacks that killed four people and wounded dozens.
A military court late Thursday approved arrest warrants for the 17, who are to hear the charges in court Friday. It is unclear how many are in custody.
The authorities have hinted, but not publicly stated, they are suspects in the attacks at seven tourist destinations. Thai reporters were told by officials on an anonymous basis that the 17 had confessed to being in a previously unknown anti-government group called Revolution for Democracy but denied carrying out the attacks.
Many analysts believe the attacks were carried out by Muslim separatists who have waged an insurgency in the deep south since 2004 that has left more than 6,000 people dead.
A search of the house of one of the 17 suspects turned up an AK-47 assault rifle, according to the anonymous sources, who released the names and home provinces of all of the suspects. Most are from the north and northeast, though all the attacks took place in southern provinces.
Col. Winthai Suvaree, a spokesman for the country's ruling junta, said the detentions were unrelated to last week's attacks. He said without elaborating that the 17 were involved in a national security case.
However, the names of some of those detained match earlier information leaked by police as being suspects in the attacks.
The crime with which the 17 are being charged is membership in a secret society, punishable by up to seven years in prison. The crime, which is also called criminal association, was originally applied many decades ago to criminal gangs such as Chinese triads. Other charges can be lodged against them at a future time.
Information about the investigation of the attacks has been vague and contradictory. At various points, the authorities have said the attacks were similar to style to those carried out by southern militants; that they were acts of local sabotage rather than terrorism; and that a single figure known to them had directed them.
Many of the statements implied that the attacks were carried out by supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of abuse of power, corruption and disrespect to 88-year-old constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The website of the newspaper Khao Sod identified some of those being arrested as supporters of Thaksin or opponents of the military government.
Thaksin's supporters and opponents have since his ouster carried out a sometimes-violent struggle for power. The army in 2014 toppled an elected government that had been led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Last week's attacks came several days after a national referendum approved a constitution proposed by the junta which is supposed to bring elections in 2017 but which critics says is undemocratic and meant to keep the army in power.
The attacks also coincided with the 84th birthday last Friday of Queen Sirikit.
Aside from the southern separatists, there has been no known organized armed opposition to the military government since it took power in 2014. However, several individuals and groups of people have been charged with sedition and other crimes for their words, often posted on the internet.
Mysterious armed men carried out violence in support of Thaksin's backers during two months of street protests in Bangkok in 2010 seeking to bring down a government led by Thaksin's political rivals. Some 91 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded, mostly by government troops who quashed the protest by force.