Death Toll Rises as Thai Protesters Battle Troops in Bangkok

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Death Toll Rises as Thai Protesters Battle Troops in Bangkok

Live rounds, teargas and grenades used in Thai capital

by
Ben Doherty in Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand: Supporters of fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra scuffle with Thai riot police during continued anti-government protests Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Thai troops fired rubber bullets
and teargas at thousands of demonstrators, who fought back with guns,
grenades and petrol bombs in riots that killed at least 15 people in
Bangkok's worst political violence in 18 years. At least 521 people,
including 64 soldiers and police, were wounded in the fighting near the
Phan Fah bridge and Rajdumnoen Road in Bangkok's old quarter, a protest base near government buildings, and the regional UN headquarters.

After
hours of violence, army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said troops would
pull back in the old quarter as the riot spread into Khao San Road, an
area popular with back-packing tourists. "If this continues, if the
army responds to the red shirts, violence will expand," Sansern said.
He urged the protesters to do the same as they pelted soldiers with
petrol bombs and M79 grenades. He said some protesters were armed with
guns.

A red shirt leader later called on supporters to pull back
to the main protest sites. The protesters, meanwhile, were upping the
stakes in their public statements against the prime minister, Abhisit
Vejjajiva. "We are changing our demand from dissolving parliament in 15
days to dissolving parliament immediately," one leader, Veera
Musikapong, told demonstrators. "And we call for Abhisit to leave the
country immediately."

Hundreds of red shirts forced their way
into government offices in two northern cities. The protesters said
they would besiege governors' offices in the provinces if there was a
crackdown in the capital.

The protesters, mostly coming from Thailand's
rural poor in the north and north-east of the country, oppose the
current government, arguing that it is illegitimate and in effect a
puppet regime for the wealthy Bangkok elite which has long controlled
Thai politics. Many are supporters of the exiled former prime minister
Thaksin Shinawatra, but their movement has also been gaining increasing
support among Bangkok's middle class.

A state of emergency was
declared in Bangkok on Wednesday, after red shirts broke into the
grounds of parliament, forcing the deputy prime minister to flee by
helicopter.

The worst clashes appeared to have occurred from
around 3pm near Phan Fah Bridge in the city's old area as the army
tried to "reclaim" the area. While the stand-off was initially
peaceful, as soldiers advanced towards a line of protesters who stood
with arms interlocked, the confrontation became heated, witnesses told
the Observer. As warning shots were fired, protesters rushed
at troops. The army initially claimed it used only teargas and rubber
bullets, later saying live rounds were fired but only into the air.

After
nearly a month of protests, the government has proved unable to counter
the growing confidence of the red shirts. Initially praised for his
cool, Vejjajiva, holed up in an army barracks, is now being criticised
as ineffective. There are doubts he has the army's full support, with
many soldiers, in particular those from the north-east, said to favour
the protesters.

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