UDON THANI, Thailand: A former Thai police officer armed with a gun and a knife killed at least 37 people in northeast Thailand on Thursday, most of them children at a nursery, in one of the kingdom's deadliest mass killings. Following the attack, gunman Panya Khamrab went home and killed his wife and child before taking his own life, police said. Armed with a shotgun, pistol and knife, Panya opened fire on the childcare center in northeastern Nong Bua Lam Phu province, at about 12:30 pm (0530 GMT).

HH the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah sent on Thursday a cable of condolences to Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn over the killings. HH the Amir expressed his deepest sorrow and condolences to the victims' families and hoped for a swift recovery of the injured in this horrendous attack. HH the Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and HH the Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Al-Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah sent similar cables to the Thai monarch.

National Police Chief Damrongsak Kittiprapat told a news conference the gunman had killed 37 people, including 23 children and his own family, and wounded 12 others. Nanthicha Punchum, acting chief of the nursery, described harrowing scenes as the attacker barged into the building in rural Uthai Sawan district. "There were some staff eating lunch outside the nursery and the attacker parked his car and shot four of them dead," she told AFP. "The shooter smashed down the door with his leg and then came inside and started slashing the children's heads with a knife."

Footage after the incident showed distraught parents weeping in a shelter outside the nursery, a yellow single-storey building set in a garden. The 34-year-old gunman was a former police sergeant suspended in January and sacked in June for drug use, Damrongsak told reporters. "As far as I know he was due in court tomorrow for a drug-related trial," he said. He said the attacker was in a manic state but it was unknown whether it was drug-related. "What happened today will be a lesson to prevent this happening again in the future," he said.

Damrongsak said the pistol used had been purchased legally and was a privately owned weapon, not police property. Witness Paweena Purichan, 31, said the attacker was well known in the area as a drug addict. She told AFP she encountered Panya driving erratically as he fled the scene. "The attacker rammed a motorbike into two people who were injured. I sped off to get away from him," she said. "There was blood everywhere."

Video Paweena posted online showed a woman lying injured in a roadside bush after apparently being knocked off her motorbike by Panya. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha ordered the national police chief to "fast-track an investigation" and said he would travel to the scene of the attack on Friday. "This should not happen. This absolutely should not happen," Prayut told reporters. "I am extremely sorry for those who were injured and lost (their loved ones)." A government spokesman said flags would fly at half-mast on Friday to honor those killed in the attack.

Thailand forms part of Southeast Asia's so-called Golden Triangle which has long been an infamous hotspot for the trafficking and abuse of drugs. Surging supplies of methamphetamine have sent street prices crashing in Thailand to all-time lows, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. The mass killing comes less than a month after an army officer shot dead two colleagues at a military training base in the capital Bangkok.

While Thailand has high rates of gun ownership, mass shootings are rare. But in the past year, there have been at least two other cases of shooting murders by serving soldiers, according to local media. In 2020, in one of the kingdom's deadliest incidents in recent years, a soldier gunned down 29 people in a 17-hour rampage and wounded scores more before he was shot dead by commandos.

That mass shooting, linked to a debt dispute between gunman Sergeant-Major Jakrapanth Thomma and a senior officer, triggered public anger against the military. The soldier was able to steal assault rifles from an army depot before embarking on his killing spree, posting live updates on social media as he did so. Military top brass were at pains to portray the killer as a rogue soldier.

The US embassy in Bangkok expressed condolences to the victims and their families after the latest tragedy, while Amnesty International said "hearts go out" to those affected. "I am shocked to hear of the horrific events in Thailand this morning. My thoughts are with all those affected and the first responders," British Prime Minister Liz Truss tweeted. Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tweeted it was "impossible to comprehend the heartbreak of this horrific news". - Agencies