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Thailand arrests suspect amid terror warning

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 2:19 PM EST, Fri January 13, 2012
Tourists visit a Buddhist temple in Bangkok. The U.S. has warned of possible terrorist attacks in the busy tourist areas of the city.
Tourists visit a Buddhist temple in Bangkok. The U.S. has warned of possible terrorist attacks in the busy tourist areas of the city.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Analysts split on possibility of Hezbollah activity in Thailand
  • Thai investigators arrest terror suspect
  • "Foreign terrorists" could be planning attacks "in the near future," the U.S. Embassy says
  • The United States and Israel issue travel warnings for Bangkok

(CNN) -- Investigators in Thailand have arrested a Lebanese terror suspect who is accused of trying to attack spots in Bangkok that are popular with Western tourists, the Thai government said Friday.

It came the same day the United States and Israel warned their citizens in Thailand of the possibility of imminent terrorist attacks in busy tourist areas of Bangkok.

The Thai government said the terror suspect is believed to belong to Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group active in Lebanon that the United States views as a terrorist organization.

The United States had passed information to Thai authorities that caused the Thai government to be on high alert and to look for suspects, said Thitima Chaisaeng, a spokeswoman for the Thai government. Neighboring countries received similar information, Chaisaeng said.

A U.S. Embassy statement spoke of "foreign terrorists" who may be planning attacks "in the near future." It urged U.S. citizens to exercise caution when visiting public areas where large groups of Western tourists gather in Bangkok.

A U.S. official says the terror threat against U.S. and Western interests is "very real" and remains an "active investigation, indicating others might be involved in the plot and are being sought. The official would not discuss any details of the nature and timing of any planned attacks.

The embassy did not provide any further information on the source of the threat.

Israel's Counter Terrorism Bureau issued a "serious travel warning" for Bangkok on Friday afternoon, saying there is a possibility of an attack against Israeli tourists "in the immediate time frame."

The warning says said the Lebanese suspect who was arrested is a member of Hezbollah and part of a group planning an attack in the Thai capital.

Thailand is a highly popular tourist destination, and Bangkok serves as a major transport hub for the Southeast Asian region.

Analysts Friday were split on the possibility that Hezbollah, designated by the United States as a terrorist organization, is active in the country.

"Historically, Hezbollah hasn't had an active presence in Thailand," said CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, who called the claim "pretty surprising."

But Matthew Levitt, an expert on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the group has acted there before.

"Hezbollah has been active in Thailand in the past, most notably the attempt to blow up the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok in 1994," said Levitt, the author of the upcoming book "Hezbollah's Global Footprint."

"It has retained most of the logistical activity in Thailand for many years, and if in fact this individual is tied to Hezbollah, this would not be something new," he said.

Thailand has undergone periods of unrest in recent years. It experienced a spate of political violence during anti-government demonstrations in 2010.

And Muslim separatists in southern Thailand have long battled government forces in a country that is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with a number of bombings taking place last year.

The embassy said U.S. citizens should "maintain a heightened awareness when out in public," advising them to be on the lookout for unattended packages and bags in public places and other crowded areas.

It also suggested that they "keep a low profile in public areas, particularly areas frequented by foreign tourists."

Fran Townsend, a national security analyst for CNN, reported that Thai officials at one of the airports serving Bangkok were conducting pat downs and bag searches on all passengers at the departure gate for U.S. air carriers.

CNN's Michal Zippori, Pam Benson, and Melissa Gray contributed to this report.

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