By Kocha Olarn and Heather Chen, CNN
Thailand recoiled in horror Thursday after at least 36 people were killed, at least 24 of them children, in a massacre at a child care center in northeastern Thailand believed to be the country’s deadliest incident of its kind.
Authorities immediately launched a manhunt for the suspected attacker, later identified by Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) as Panya Kamrab, a 34-year-old former policeman. According to Thai Royal Police, he was suspended from police duty earlier this year relation to drug possession charges.
Among the dozens of victims are Panya’s wife and stepson, whom investigators say he killed before taking his own life.
His 2-year-old stepson was enrolled at the nursery that he attacked Thursday, but was not present while the attack was carried out, according to a local police chief.
“(Panya) went to look for his two-year-old son, but the boy was not there … so he started shooting as well as stabbing people at the nursery,” police spokesperson Maj. General Paisan Luesomboon told CNN.
Panya then “managed to get into a room where 24 kids were sleeping together,” killing all but one of them.
“He also used a knife to stab both children and staff at the center,” Paisan said.
One of the center’s teachers described a horrific scene to local media, explaining that the attacker entered the center around noon, while two other staff members were having lunch.
“I suddenly heard the sound just sounded like fire crackers. So I looked back [and] the two staffs just collapsed on the floor,” the teacher said.
“Then he pulled another gun from his waist…I didn’t expect he would also kill the kids,” they said.
The teacher also said that the attacker was also carrying a second gun, as well as a knife, which he used to fatally stab another teacher, who was eight months pregnant.
One eyewitness told Reuters she believed the attacker was coming to pick up his child. When he arrived to the center, he “didn’t say anything,” and “shot at the door while the children were sleeping,” she said.
Most of the deaths were the result of “stabbing wounds,” Paisan told CNN.
A teacher also told Reuters that the attacker had mainly used a knife.
“It all went down really fast. He was slashing the knife, he didn’t use the gun, he kept slashing in there. It’s all by a knife,” she said.
Police General Damrongsak Kittiprapas said that the attacker “mainly used a knife” to kill the children.
“Then he got out and started killing anyone he met along the way with a gun or the knife until he got home,” said Damrongsak. “We surrounded the house and then found that he committed suicide in his home.”
The massacre took place at the Child Development Center in Nong Bua Lamphu province’s Uthaisawan Na Klang district, according to a statement from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who called the incident “shocking” and expressed his condolences to the families of the victims.
The province, located approximately 540 kilometers (around 335 miles) northeast of Bangkok, is a largely peaceful and quiet area, and is not known for violence.
Prayut will travel to the province on Friday to meet with families of the victims, according to a statement from his office.
‘No child should be a target’
Thai Royal police said Panya was due to receive a verdict in his ongoing case over alleged possession of methamphetamine, on Oct. 7.
In an earlier undated search of his residence, police found a tablet of Yaba in his house, they also said. Yaba is a combination of methamphetamine and caffeine, which is a tablet usually crushed and smoked, known locally as “crazy medicine.”
Charges of possessing the “Category 1” drug led to his suspension from police duty in January.
Gun ownership in Thailand is relatively high compared with other countries in Southeast Asia.
There were more than 10.3 million civilian owned firearms in Thailand, or around 15 guns for every 100 people, according to 2017 data from the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey (SAS). Approximately 6.2 million of those guns are legally registered, according to SAS.
Thailand ranks as the Southeast Asian country with the second-highest gun homicides after the Philippines, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s 2019 Global Burden of Disease database.
In a statement, UNICEF said it was “shocked” by the tragedy and sent its condolences to the families affected.
It condemned the attack, saying: “No child should be a target or witness of violence any where, anytime,” adding, “Early childhood development centers, schools and all learning spaces must be safe havens for young children to learn, play and grow during their most critical years.”
UK Prime Minister Liz Truss said in a tweet that she was “shocked to hear of the horrific events,” and said that her “thoughts are with all those affected and the first responders.”
“The UK stands with the Thai people at this terrible time,” she said.
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CNN’s Hannah Ritchie and Kara Fox contributed reporting.