NARATHIWAT, Thailand, Aug 25, 2009 (AFP) - A powerful car bomb ripped through a restaurant packed with government officials in Thailand's troubled Muslim-majority south Tuesday, wounding at least 42 people, the army said.
The blast was one of the most serious for months in the kingdom's insurgency-plagued provinces bordering Malaysia where a bloody separatist rebellion has been raging for more than five years.
The 50-kilogram (110-pound) device was hidden inside a stolen Toyota pick-up truck and exploded during the busy lunch hour in the centre of Narathiwat, the main town in the province of the same name, officials said.
"It's very horrible. We had intelligence that militants would mount a large-scale attack," Lieutenant General Pichet Wisaichorn, the southern region army commander, told reporters.
He said that seven of the 42 people injured in the blast were in a critical condition. Most of the wounded were Buddhist government officials, who are often targeted by the Islamist militants in the region.
Police and rescue workers were rushing the wounded to hospital and the local government chief was among those injured, a policeman said on condition of anonymity.
More than 3,700 people have been killed and thousands more injured since the insurgency erupted in 2004, led by shadowy insurgents who have never publicly stated their goals.
The south has seen a recent upsurge in attacks, many of which involve shootings of Buddhists and Muslims alike. There have also been gruesome killings such as crucifixions and beheadings.
Gunmen stormed a mosque in Narathiwat province in June, killing 11 people as they held evening prayers. The army blamed separatist militants but villagers said security forces were responsible.
While there were no immediate reports of deaths in Tuesday's attack, it was the biggest bomb attack in the south since twin blasts killed one person and wounded 70 in Narathiwat in November.
Thailand's four southernmost provinces made up an autonomous Malay Muslim sultanate until the region was annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand in 1902, sparking decades of tension.