Thai troops battle protesters as crisis deepens

By Jason Szep and Ambika Ahuja

BANGKOK (BestGrowthStock) – Thai troops opened fire on rioting anti-government demonstrators on Friday in an attempt to throw a security cordon around their protest site, turning Bangkok’s commercial district into a bloody battlefield.

Troops fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds at the protesters who hurled petrol bombs and launched home-made rockets on roads surrounding an area of luxury hotels and shopping malls they have occupied for nearly six weeks, witnesses said.

“We hope to return the situation to normal in the next few days,” said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.

By nightfall, at least five loud blasts were heard followed by bursts of automatic gunfire in the business district. Armored personnel carriers were seen arriving in the area.

The fresh wave of violence follows an assassination attempt on Thursday on a renegade general who had been advising the protesters and was critically wounded during an interview with foreign reporters outside the barricaded encampment.

Five people have been killed and at least 92 were wounded, including three journalists, since the fighting erupted Thursday night, according to hospitals and witnesses.

A Bangkok-based Canadian journalist working for France 24 television station suffered multiple gun shot wounds but was in stable condition. Two Thai journalists were also shot.

The army said it did not plan a crackdown on Friday on the main protest site where thousands of the red-shirted demonstrators, including women and children, have gathered, protected by medieval-like walls made from tires and wooden staves soaked in kerosene and topped by razor wire.

“We will allow protesters to leave the area today,” army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told reporters, adding that authorities were attempting to seal off the encampment, cut off their supplies and limit the crowd size.

POOR VS ELITE

The turbulence adds to a five-year crisis that pits a royalist urban elite who back Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva against rural and urban poor who say they are disenfranchised and broadly support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup.

They say the Oxford-educated Abhisit lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote.

Underlining concerns that some members of security forces may be sympathetic toward the red shirts, a Thai policeman fired bullets at soldiers while giving cover to a wounded protester, a Reuters witness said. A police spokesman denied that.

The two months of protests have spiraled into a crisis which has killed 31 people, wounded more than 1,400 wounded, paralyzed parts of Bangkok, scared off investors and squeezed the economy.

Thousands of protesters remained defiant, singing along to live music on stage and calling for Abhisit to dissolve parliament immediately.

“Abhisit must take political responsibility. Otherwise, there will be more chaos,” one leader, Nattawut Saikua, told Reuters.

Some protest leaders, including the movement’s chairman, have not been seen at their 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) encampment for days.

The cost of insuring Thai debt jumped and Thai bond yields fell to a nine-month low as investors rushed to the relative safety of government debt spooked by the latest turn in Thailand’s protracted political impasse.

Five-year Thai credit default swaps, used to hedge against debt default, widened by more than 30 basis points — the biggest jump in 15 months — to 142 basis points.

RIOTING NEAR EMBASSIES

In clashes during the day, protesters set fire to a police bus and truck, a motorbike and tires as they retreated down a road lined with office towers, hotels, the U.S. ambassador’s home and several embassies, which were closed and evacuated.

The latest violence followed tough security measures imposed on Thursday to reclaim Bangkok’s commercial district after the collapse of a reconciliation plan Abhisit proposed last week.

An emergency decree was declared in 17 northern and northeastern provinces, red shirt strongholds, to prevent unrest and to stop convoys of protesters from coming into Bangkok.

Abhisit is under enormous pressure to end the protests, which began with festive rallies on March 12 and descended into Thailand’s deadliest political violence in 18 years.

The Thai government stands a good chance of clearing the streets, the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy said.

“But it will not end the polarization that has led to the current instability — ensuring that the pressure from the red shirts will persist and that political volatility will remain a persistent problem for Thailand for the foreseeable future”.

It is unclear who shot the renegade major-general, Khattiya Sawasdipol, a suspended army specialist better known as “Seh Daeng” (Commander Red) who was in charge of the protesters’ security in their barricaded encampment.

He underwent brain surgery and was in critical condition.

He had been branded a terrorist by the Thai government, which accused him of involvement in dozens of grenade attacks but denied it was responsible for the shooting.

His shooting sparked a number of skirmishes overnight between rock-throwing protesters and armed security forces.

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(Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate, Panarat Thepgumpanart and Martin Petty; editing by Bill Tarrant)

Thai troops battle protesters as crisis deepens