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In Thailand, mourning for the children and others slain by an ex-police officer

A family of a victim mourns as they bring a blanket and a milk bottle during a ceremony for those killed in the attack on the Young Children's Development Center in the rural town of Uthai Sawan, north eastern Thailand, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand — Relatives grieving staggering loss Friday laid flowers at a day care center in rural northeastern Thailand where a fired police officer slaughtered dozens of people, including children as young as 2 who were napping.

The entire country reeled in the wake of Thursday's grisly attack in a small town nestled among rice paddies in one of the nation's poorest regions. At least 24 of the 36 people killed in the assault, Thailand's deadliest mass shooting, were children.

"I cried until I had no more tears coming out of my eyes. They are running through my heart," said Seksan Sriraj, 28, who lost his pregnant wife due to give birth this month in the attack at the Young Children's Development Center in Uthai Sawan.

"My wife and my child have gone to a peaceful place. I am alive and will have to live. If I can't go on, my wife and my child will be worried about me, and they won't be reborn in the next life," he said.

Royal and government representatives in white military uniforms laid wreaths at ceremonial tables in front of the center's main door on Friday morning, as a faded Thai flag flew at half staff above. They were followed by weeping family members, who gathered their hands in prayer before placing white flowers on the wooden floor.

Later, villagers lined the roads of the town as a stream of ambulances brought the bodies back to the day care center so waiting relatives could claim them.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida were expected later in the day to visit hospitals, where seven of the 10 people who were wounded remain. Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha was expected to visit the day care center and the hospitals. A vigil was planned in a central Bangkok park.

Police identified the attacker as Panya Kamrap, 34, a former police sergeant fired earlier this year because of a drug charge involving methamphetamine. He had been due to appear in court Friday. An employee told a Thai TV station that Panya's son had attended the day care but hadn't been there for about a month.

When asked whether he thought the center was secure enough, Seksan noted the attacker had been a police officer. "He came to do what he had in his mind and was determined to do it. I think everyone did the best they could."

Witnesses said the attacker shot a man and child in front of the center before walking toward it. Teachers locked the glass front door, but the gunman shot and kicked his way through it. The children, mainly 2- and 3-year-olds, had been taking an afternoon nap, and photos taken by first responders showed their tiny bodies still lying on blankets. In some images, slashes to the victims' faces and gunshots to their heads could be seen.

Panya took his own life after killing his wife and child at home.

The attack took place in Nongbua Lamphu province, one of the country's poorest regions.

In an interview with Amarin TV, Satita Boonsom, who worked at the day care center, said staff locked the door to the building after seeing the assailant shoot a child and his father out front. But the attacker broke the glass door and went on to attack the children and workers with his knife and firearm.

Satita said she and three other teachers climbed the nursery's fence to escape and call police and seek help. By the time she returned, the children were dead. She said one child who was covered by a blanket survived the attack, apparently because the assailant assumed he was dead.

She said the center usually has around 70 to 80 children, but there were fewer at the time of the attack because the semester had ended for older children and also because a school bus wasn't able to run because of the rain.

"They wouldn't have survived," she said.

Satita added that the attacker's son hadn't been to the day care center recently because he was sick.

One of the youngest survivors is a 3-year-old boy who was riding a tricycle close to his mother and grandmother when the assailant began slashing them with the knife. The mother died from her wounds, and the boy and grandmother were being treated at hospitals, according to local media.

Mass shootings are rare but not unheard of in Thailand, which has one of the highest civilian gun ownership rates in Asia, with 15.1 weapons per 100 people compared to only 0.3 in Singapore and 0.25 in Japan. That's still far lower than the U.S. rate of 120.5 per 100 people, according to a 2017 survey by Australia's GunPolicy.org nonprofit organization.

Support and condolences poured in from around the world. "All Australians send their love and condolences," Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tweeted. "This violence is both senseless and heartbreaking," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

"I'm profoundly saddened by the heinous shooting at a childcare centre in Thailand," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted.

Thailand's previous worst mass shooting involved a disgruntled soldier who opened fire in and around a mall in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima in 2020, killing 29 people and holding off security forces for some 16 hours before eventually being killed by them.

Nearly 60 others were wounded in that attack. Its death toll surpassed that of the previously worst attack on civilians, a 2015 bombing at a shrine in Bangkok that killed 20 people. It was allegedly carried out by human traffickers in retaliation for a crackdown on their network.

Last month, a clerk shot co-workers at Thailand's Army War College in Bangkok, killing two and wounding another before he was arrested.

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