UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand (Reuters): Crying and clutching toys, traumatised relatives gathered at a children's daycare centre in Thailand where a day earlier a former policeman had slain 34 people, most of them children, in a knife and gun rampage that horrified the nation.
Government buildings flew flags at half mast on Friday (Oct 7) to mourn victims - 23 of them children - of the carnage in Uthai Sawan, a town 500km northeast of Bangkok, the capital of the largely Buddhist country.
After leaving the daycare centre - a pink, one-storey building surrounded by a lawn and small palm trees - filled with dead, dying and wounded, the ex-officer went home and shot dead his wife and son before turning his weapon on himself.
Most of the children, aged between two and five, were slashed to death, while adults were shot, police said in the aftermath of the worst child death toll in a massacre by a single killer in recent history.
The aunt of a three-year old boy who died in the slaughter held a stuffed dog and a toy tractor in her lap as she recounted how she had rushed to the scene when the news first spread.
"I came and I saw two bodies in front of the school and I immediately knew that the kid was already dead," said Suwimon Sudfanpitak, 40, who had been looking after her nephew, Techin, while his parents worked in Bangkok.
Another of the dead was Kritsana Sola, a chubby-cheeked two-year-old who loved dinosaurs and football and was nicknamed "captain". He had just got a new haircut and was proudly showing it off, said his aunt, Naliwan Duangket, 27.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha was set to visit on Friday, and government officials laid royal wreaths and flowers outside the daycare centre. King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida were also set to meet victim's families, according to a local announcement.
Police identified the attacker as Panya Khamrap, 34, a former police sergeant who was discharged over drug accusations and who was facing trial on a drugs charge.
Panya went to the daycare centre to pick up his child after attending court earlier in the day, police spokesperson Paisal Luesomboon told broadcaster ThaiPBS. When he did not find his child there, he began the killing spree.
"He started shooting, slashing, killing children," Paisal said.
One witness, Kittisak Polprakan, said he saw the attacker calmly walking out of the centre after the massacre, "as if he was just taking a normal stroll".
Police official Chakkraphat Wichitvaidya told Reuters autopsies showed the children had been slashed with a large knife, sometimes multiple times, and adults shot.
He said police were investigating the motive, while suspecting that Panya could have been triggered by stress.
"I don't know (why he did this), but he was under a lot of pressure," Panya's mother told Nation TV, citing debts her son had run up and his drug taking.
Photographs taken at the centre by rescuers and provided to Reuters showed the tiny bodies of the killed laid out on blankets. Abandoned juice boxes were scattered across the floor.
"He was heading towards me and I begged him for mercy, I didn’t know what to do," one distraught woman told ThaiPBS, fighting back tears.
"He didn’t say anything, he shot at the door while the kids were sleeping," said another woman, becoming distraught.
The attacker forced his way into a locked room where the children were sleeping, Jidapa said. Three boys and a girl who survived were being treated in hospital, police said.
About 30 children were at the centre when the attack began, fewer than usual as heavy rain had kept many people away, said district official Jidapa Boonsom.
Hundreds of people posted condolences on the Facebook page of the Mutahi Sawant Child Development Centre under its last post before the massacre, an account of a visit the children made to a Buddhist temple in September.
In a message, the Vatican said Pope Francis had been deeply saddened by the "horrific attack", which he condemned as an "act of unspeakable violence against innocent children".
The massacre is among the worst involving children killed by one person.
In Norway in 2011, Anders Breivik killed 69 people, mostly teenagers, at a summer camp, while the death toll in other cases includes 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut in 2012, 16 at Dunblane in Scotland in 1996 and 19 at a school in Uvalde, Texas, this year.
Gun laws are strict in Thailand, but gun ownership is high compared with some South-East Asian countries, and illegal weapons are common, with many brought in from strife-torn neighbours.