Relief as Thai hostages return home amid fears for those still held in Gaza

Group of 17 Thai nationals return from a total of 23 who have been released by Hamas, with nine still captive in Gaza.

The first batch of Thai nationals who were released by the Palestinian group Hamas arrives home after being held for nearly two months in Gaza, at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport in Thailand November 30, 2023 [Jorge Silva/Reuters]

Thai hostages freed after weeks being held captive by Hamas in Gaza have spoken of their relief after returning to Bangkok, where they were welcomed home by overjoyed relatives.

A group of 17 Thai nationals arrived on a flight from Israel on Thursday after Bangkok’s foreign ministry and Thai Muslim groups worked to negotiate their release.

At least 32 Thais were abducted by Hamas fighters when they attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240 others, according to Israeli authorities.

At least 39 Thais were killed in the attack, according to the Thai government.

When the group of freed captives arrived at the airport in Bangkok, they asked for a moment of silence to mourn the Thais killed in the attack.

“I’m saddened that my 39 fellow workers who died, and would like everybody to take a moment to mourn their loss,” the group’s representative Uthai Saengnuan told reporters.

The returnees stood in a line, some wearing shirts with the Thai and Israeli flags.

Pornsawan Pinakalo, who was working on a potato farm when he was kidnapped, told reporters that he wanted to see all the Thai captives released. At least nine other Thai nationals are held in Gaza.

“It would be better if all of our friends could come back,” he said.

“When I was there I tried not to think too much about what might happen, because I was sad I wouldn’t see my family again.”

Before the Israel-Hamas war, about 30,000 Thai labourers worked in the agriculture sector, making the group one of Israel’s largest migrant worker groups.

Since the war erupted, 9,000 Thais have been repatriated.

“All Thais were worried about you,” Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said told the returnees via a video call as they gathered for the news conference at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.

Thai migrant workers in Israel come mainly from the Southeast Asian nation’s rural northeast, seeking higher pay to send home to their families.

Family members greeted their relatives at the airport and spoke of their relief at their return.

“I’ve been following the news. At first, when his name didn’t appear as a hostage I was shocked thinking that he would be dead,” Pornsawan’s mother Lumpong Pinakalo, 51, told the AFP news agency.

She urged the families of the nine Thais still held captive in Gaza to stay positive.

“If your child has been named as a hostage, I would say to have faith, because there is still hope.”

Nattawaree Moolkan, the only woman among the Thai hostages, wept as she said, “Thank you for all your encouragement.”

Reporting from Bangkok, Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington said the Thai government was focused on efforts to bring back the remaining Thai nationals held in Gaza.

“It [Bangkok] is working with Qatar, Malaysia, and other countries to secure their release,” she said, adding that the government has instructed journalists not to ask the group about the conditions of their detention.

Israel-Hamas truce extended

Ten of the hostages were released last Friday, as a truce began following weeks of negotiations brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United States. Seven others were released by Hamas in the days that followed.

The group recuperated at a hospital in Israel as authorities made preparations to fly them home, Thai officials said.

“The support of friends and allies helped secure the release of Thai hostages,” Foreign Minister Pranpree Bahiddha-Nukara told reporters, adding that the government would continue its efforts in securing the release of those who remain in Gaza.

Pranpree said he held had talks with his counterparts in several Middle Eastern countries with Hamas contacts. He was previously in Cairo and Doha for talks.

A Thai Muslim group that held direct talks with Hamas said their efforts were crucial in securing the early release of Thai hostages. On the first day of the Israel-Hamas truce, 10 Thai hostages were released without condition.

Six more Thais were released on Tuesday and Wednesday and were undergoing medical checks, the foreign ministry said, taking the total number freed to 23, with nine still in captivity.

After the Hamas attack, Israel launched a massive campaign of air, artillery and naval bombardment alongside a ground offensive into Gaza, killing more than 15,000 people, mostly civilians, according to Palestinian officials.

The first batch of Thai nationals who were released by the Palestinian group Hamas arrives home after being held for nearly two months in Gaza, at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport in Thailand, November 30, 2023 [Jorge Silva/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies