Children among at least 36 people killed in child care center massacre in Thailand

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(CNN)— At least 23 children were among 36 people killed in a massacre at a child care center in northeastern Thailand on Thursday.

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 involved in an ongoing court case for allegedly selling drugs.

Kamrab had appeared in court on drug charges in the hours before the attack.

Investigators later confirmed he had killed his wife and his stepson before taking his own life. It is unclear if the attacker and his family are included in the current death toll.

The suspect had appeared in court in Nong Bua Lamphu province hours before "opening fire while the kids were sleeping," according to Maj. Gen. Jirapob Puridet of the CIB.

His 2-year-old stepson was enrolled at the center he attacked Thursday, but was not present while the attack was carried out, according to a local police chief.

"(The shooter) 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.

The massacre took place at the Child Development Center in Nong Bua Lamphu province's Uthaisawan Na Klang district, according to a statement from the prime minister's office.

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.

"The prime minister has expressed his condolences on the shooting incident," the statement read.

Puridet told CNN the former officer was dismissed from duty and "charged with selling narcotics" last year.

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.

Mass shootings in the country, however, are rare but a 2020 incident saw a soldier kill 29 people in a shooting spree that began at a military site and then sent shoppers hunting for cover after the gunman entered a mall.

The incident sparked international condemnation.

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.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "Children among at least 36 people killed in child care center massacre in Thailand."