Thai troops move in on "red shirts," firing in air

By Damir Sagolj and Ambika Ahuja

BANGKOK (BestGrowthStock) – Thai troops fired in the air above thousands of “red shirt” protesters Saturday in the biggest confrontation in the month-long opposition campaign for new elections, a Reuters photographer said.

Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said troops had been ordered to “reclaim” the Phan Fah bridge and Rajdumnoen Road area in Bangkok, near several government and army buildings.

Soldiers had also massed at the main protest site in the upmarket Rachaprason shopping area, apparently ready to move in and disperse an estimated 5,000 red shirts, including women and children, who used taxis to barricade themselves in.

“We are still waiting for instructions on the shopping district,” Sansern said.

Medical authorities said 33 people were injured in the army action, but they had no details.

The government declared a state of emergency Wednesday to control the protests after red shirts broke into the grounds of parliament, forcing some officials to flee by helicopter.

“The protest is now illegal and we urge that every peace-loving person leave the restricted areas,” Sansern said. “The army will not kill Thais but we have to restore law and order.”

Scores of protesters, some throwing rocks and glass bottles, tried earlier to force their way into an army base at Phan Fah bridge but were repelled by water cannon. Troops using tear gas and batons then advanced toward the red shirts from several directions nearby.

Asked about the troop movements, acting government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told a television reporter: “It’s in line with the government’s earlier announcement that the reds should move from restricted places.”

He said the security forces would try first to negotiate with them to leave but declined to say what would happen if they refused.

Hundreds more red shirts, supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had earlier gathered at a satellite earth station north of Bangkok after Thai authorities again blocked transmission of an opposition TV station they said was inciting unrest. However, this group had dispersed by mid-afternoon.

At the red shirt base in the shopping district, protest leader Nattawut Saikua had said the fight for new elections would go on and there would be no let-up over next week’s Thai New Year holiday

“We want to condemn the government for blocking our television channel again,” he said from a makeshift stage. “They’ve gone back on what they said to us. How can we let these kind of people lead our country? We have to fight on.”

The red shirts have been demonstrating in Bangkok for a month, effectively closing down the upmarket shopping district for a week until some big stores reopened Friday.

The red shirts say they are fighting for democracy and against the power wielded by an unelected elite and military.

Their opponents say they are being used by Thaksin to force an election his allies would probably win, after which he could return home and reclaim money seized by the courts for abuse of power while in office.

He lives in self-imposed exile, based in Dubai, after fleeing in 2008 before he was sentenced to two years’ jail for corruption.

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(Addition reporting by Jason Szep, Warapan Worasart and Viparat Jantraprap; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Thai troops move in on “red shirts,” firing in air