BANGKOK, Thailand -- This Buddhist-majority nation is gripped with suspense over an unsolved, bloody New Year's Eve terrorist attack in Bangkok.

Who planted nine bombs in the capital's streets during public count-down celebrations, killing three people and injuring 30 others in neon-lit darkness?

Consider the clues and characters:

Immediately after synchronized bombs exploded in scattered urban areas during New Year's Eve, Thailand's unelected military regime insisted Islamist insurgents were not involved.

Synchronized bomb attacks in urban areas, however, have been an impressively successful tactic for ethnic Malay-Thai rebels fighting for independence in the south.

Police however pointed at two men, filmed by closed-circuit security cameras, wandering Bangkok's Seacon Square shopping mall while lugging a shopping bag, alongside other customers near one New Year's Eve bomb site.

Grainy, poorly focused video did not reveal much about the suspects.

But two nervous Thai men, Pradya Prichavej and Yutapong Kitisriworapan, soon came forward and publicly announced they were the people in the mall's video.

The men, in their thirties and sporting shoulder-length hair, insisted they were innocent and had been shopping together, unaware their presence coincided with the New Year's Eve assault.

Anxious police busted the men for alleged terrorism, and began interrogating them.

Thai media, meanwhile, appeared to believe the alibi of the "look-alike pair," and reported how the two close friends were languishing behind bars, in legal limbo.

The Justice Ministry, unimpressed by the police investigation, became concerned that the two were jailed while merely trying to clear their names.

The ministry tried to convince police to release the two, and offered the inmates access to legal aid.

Police eventually freed them on Monday (April 2), but warned that the men were not presumed innocent -- even if they could not be found guilty.

"The two men still are not considered innocent," National Police deputy chief, Patcharawat Wongsuwan, told reporters on Monday (April 2).

"We just don't have enough evidence, and can't charge them," the police general said.

"It is up to both men whether they will file lawsuits against police" for possible wrongful arrest, he said.

Self-appointed bounty hunters have been updating police with alleged clues, names, and other information amid hopes of a cash reward.

Published reports about the Bangkok bombing are difficult to confirm because coup leaders are keeping half of Thailand under martial law, blocking Web sites critical of their regime, and spinning contradictory statements.

But details indicate southern Islamists may have indeed bloodied Bangkok.

"The materials used to assemble the nine bombs included metal boxes containing ball bearings and nails, a Casio watch, a nine-volt battery, and a small deodorant spray bottle containing gun powder," the Bangkok Post recently reported, quoting a "highly-placed" police investigator.

"The same materials are used by the southern insurgents," the report said.

The bombs in Bangkok, and in the south, also used matching Motorola-brand "silicon controlled rectifier diodes," it said.

Thailand's military -- largely trained and armed by the United States -- has been losing its war to crush the southern Islamists.

The battle has divided Muslims and Buddhists in the Muslim-majority provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, and killed more than 2,000 people on all sides since January 2004.

Islamist rebels have adopted strategies used by Muslim insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, including beheadings, in a ruthless effort to chase Thai Buddhists and moderate Muslims out of the south.

Vulnerable to the perception that the Islamists are getting stronger, and possibly escaped after attacking Bangkok, security forces initially manipulated blame by pointing at people who lost jobs and influence when the military seized power in a bloodless coup last September.

"Based on the government's information, and intelligence agencies, it [the Bangkok bombing] was the work of people who lost power," coup-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told reporters on January 1, after meeting top security officials.

"It is very unlikely that it was linked to the southern violence, because it is much easier for the insurgents to mount an attack in the three southern provinces," said Surayud, a retired general.

When the regime was unable to display evidence of a coup-related attack, their hurried allegation was seen as an opportunist attempt to smear the ousted, self-exiled prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, critics said.

Mr. Thaksin, a hawkish billionaire, is currently fighting allegations of massive corruption and other abuses, committed during his five years in power.

He denied involvement in the mysterious blasts.

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is