• Associated Press

Families Reunite with 17 Thai Hostages Freed by Hamas at Homecoming at Bangkok Airport

AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit
Thai hostages who were freed from Hamas arrive at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Samut Prakarn Province, Thailand, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

BANGKOK (AP) — Seventeen Thai workers released from captivity by the militant Hamas group were greeted Thursday by family and friends, officials and journalists in an emotional homecoming at Bangkok’s international airport.

The 17 are among 23 Thais freed so far, with six left temporarily behind in Israel because doctors said they were not yet fit to travel. Thai officials says another nine Thai hostages are still being held in Gaza.

Ratree Sampan, who traveled from the northeastern province of Nakhon Phanom, arrived early at the airport for the reunion with her son Buddee Saengboon.

“After the war broke out, I could not contact him,” said the 57-year-old Ratree. “For one month and 18 days, I assumed he was already dead.”

“I waited for a miracle, and it happened. He survived,” she said.

There were about 30,000 Thai workers — mostly laborers in the agricultural sector — in Israel prior to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, when militants stormed through a border fence and killed hundreds of Israelis — and 38 Thais.

Israel responded with devastating airstrikes and a ground offensive that has killed thousands, and has vowed to crush Hamas’ military capabilities. A cease-fire has now held for seven days, and Hamas has released 81 hostages, mostly Israeli nationals but also others, while Israel has freed 180 Palestinian prisoners.

The Thais generally come from poorer regions of Thailand, especially the northeast, and take the jobs in Israel because they can earn many times what they would at home. They started being recruited for such work several years ago to replace Palestinians who had been doing the same jobs.

Since the war broke out, about 9,000 Thais have been voluntarily repatriated, but some have already said they hope to return to Israel because of the money they can earn.

The freed hostages, several clad in white t-shirts with a picture of Thai and Israeli flags, arrived on a flight of the Israeli airline El Al and were shepherded to a hectic airport news conference. They are the first to make it home.

There were no dramatic stories of their captivity, however. Thai officials have followed the Israeli government’s lead in urging the released workers, their families and the media not to make public details of their time as prisoners to help ensure the safety of those still being held.

Most were spare with their words, but Nutthawaree Munkan— the only woman among the 17 — seemed to speak for all of them when she briefly addressed the media. “Thank you for all your support to bring me home,” she said, fighting back tears.

Former hostage Uthai Saengnuan called for a minute’s silence to remember the 39 Thais known to have died in Hamas’ unprecedented Oct. 7 incursion into Israel.

The releases are being seen as a triumph for Thai diplomacy and a number of Middle Eastern countries who have lobbied on the behalf of the hostages. Thailand’s prime minister put in a live video call to the airport to greet them.

“Are you happy? You’re home now,” said Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.

The formalities finished, the workers were directed to get into a bus to head for their hometowns. One of the freed hostages, 30-year-old Pornsawan Pinakalo, was separately picked up by his father. They both hugged while Pornsawan kneeled down to hug his dad. Both cried with joy.

“I thought we’d lost him and now he’s back. It’s like the meaning of his name: a blessing from heaven,” his father, Kong Panasudlamai, told reporters.

Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, who had traveled to the Middle East to pursue the workers’ release and to greet them when they had been sent back to Israel from Gaza, was among the officials at the airport on Thursday.

“We will continue to work on this mission to ensure that the remaining nine hostages receive freedom and return to Thailand,” he vowed at the news conference.

AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit
Thailand’s Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara, seventh from left, poses for photographers with Thai hostages who were freed from Hamas after they arrived at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Samut Prakarn Province, Thailand, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.