11 July 2024

Kittiya Thuengsaeng thought her 28-year-old boyfriend was among the almost 40 Thais killed in Hamas’s deadly assault on Israel last month.

But on Friday night Thai officials shocked her with news so good it seemed impossible.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she told AFP, describing the moment she saw a photograph of Wichai Kalapat after he was released from weeks in captivity.

“I had a chat with him in the morning. He was still smiling. He told me he was safe.”

Thailand’s foreign ministry said Saturday that 10 Thai hostages had been released by Hamas and would be returned to the kingdom “as soon as possible”, after undergoing medical checks in Israel.

Twenty Thais remain among the approximately 215 hostages still held by Palestinian militants after the October 7 wave of cross-border raids into Israel.

In the worst attack in Israel’s history, 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel retaliated with a massive campaign of air, artillery and naval strikes alongside a ground offensive into Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas.

According to the Hamas-run government, the war has killed around 15,000 people, thousands of them children.

Roongarun Wichanguen, sister of 33-year-old Thai hostage Vetoon Phoome, said she got the news her brother was coming home early Saturday.

“I was very happy because my hopes were very dim, but suddenly there was hope,” she told AFP.

She saw a photo of Vetoon, who moved from northeastern Nong Bua Lam Phu province to Israel five years ago to work on a potato farm, and was in disbelief.

“I zoomed in and I found my brother there in it,” she said. “I had a video call with my brother and his face was happy,” she added.

“He said that he was not tortured, or assaulted, and had been fed good food. He was taken care of very well.” A Thai official confirmed to AFP that Vetoon and Wichai were among those freed.

– ‘Have faith’ –

On Friday, a truce began following weeks of negotiations brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United States.

Under the agreement, a four-day pause in the fighting should see at least 50 hostages released from Gaza in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Hamas released 24 hostages in total on Friday, according to Israel and key mediator Qatar.

They included 13 Israelis — all women and children, some of whom were dual citizens — 10 Thais and one Filipino.

Their release follows a visit to Qatar by Thailand’s foreign minister at the end of October to hold talks with his Iranian counterpart about the Thai captives.

Some 30,000 Thais were working in Israel, mostly in the agriculture sector, at the time of the attacks, according to Thailand’s labour ministry.

Wichai, a pomegranate farm labourer from eastern Roi Et province, had been working for 10 months near the Gaza border, trying to earn enough to support his family.

“It was our plan to get married next year,” Kittiya said.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin shared an image of the released Thais on the social media platform X and wrote he was “very happy”, but called for the remaining captives to be freed.

In Si Sa Ket town in northeastern Thailand, Kanyarat Suriyasri still hopes to hear some good news about her husband Owat Suriyasri, believed to be held by Hamas.

In this picture taken on October 13, 2023, Kanyarat Suriyasri, shows a picture of him and their two children during an interview,//AFP

“Nobody knows how he is doing,” she told AFP, saying she has had no updates from the Thai embassy. “The longer he is gone, the worse it hurts,” Kanyarat said. “All I can do is to have faith.”

Agence France Presse