Bangkok tense as police do battle with protesters

Mon, Apr 13, 2009, 01:00

Thai troops fired at crowds of anti-government protesters in Bangkok today and demonstrators fought back with firebombs and rocks, in clashes that killed two people and injured 94.

One person was shot dead in fighting between the protesters and residents, Satit Wongnongtaey, a minister at the prime minister's office, said on television. A hospital said another person was also fatally shot in the violence.

Near dusk, soldiers advanced into an area held by protesters near Government House, the prime minister's office, setting the stage for a final push to end demonstrations that have further hobbled a country still reeling from political chaos last year and the global financial crisis.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has advised Irish travellers against non-essential travel in the Bangkok area, and said visitors to the country should exercise extreme caution.

Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has ruled out an immediate dissolution of parliament, and said Thailand faced a decisive moment for the rule of law.

With thousands of demonstrators still camped outside the prime minister's office, Mr Abhisit told Reuters: "If they are not inciting violence, if they are not engaged in riots, if they don't have weapons, then they can exercise their rights."

But Mr Abhisit said he was not interested in making a deal with exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been the figurehead of the "red shirt" protest movement that caused chaos in the capital today and forced the postponement of a high-profile Asian summit in Thailand at the weekend.

Hundreds of soldiers with riot police behind them lined up on two roads approaching Government House, where protesters have been encamped since late March.

The army also set up roadblocks to stop demonstrators elsewhere from returning to the Government House area.

Preparing for conflict, protesters lit several city buses on fire to block the troops. One side of a government building was on fire, and a Thai television channel said it was caused by a firebomb.

Several thousand "red shirts" were still at Government House as night fell. Prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appeared on television urging people to leave and guaranteeing their safety. Mr Abhisit had declared a state of emergency in Bangkok yesterday.

The clashes came two days after "red shirt" protesters forced cancellation of a high-profile Asian summit in Thailand, a big embarrassment for Mr Abhisit, whom they have been trying to oust. He took office only in December.

Several countries issued travel advisories for Thailand.

Mr Thaksin, the figurehead of the protests, told CNN from an undisclosed location that people had died.

"Many people are dying ... They even take the bodies on the military trucks and take them away," he said.

Thailand's Emergency Medical Institute said 94 people, including soldiers, were injured in Monday's clashes, including 24 still hospitalised.

The violence began before dawn at the start of the Thai New Year holiday, much of it near one of the city's central traffic hubs Din Daeng junction, which "red shirts" had blockaded.

Even as soldiers and protesters battled in the streets, in other parts of town squealing children and shrieking adults blasted each other with squirtguns as part of new year celebrations.

General Songkitti Chakabakr, Thailand's top military commander, said in a televised statement today the committee charged with restoring order would strive "through every peaceful means" to bring things back to normal as soon as possible, but reserved the right to use force if necessary.

Thailand's intractable political divide pits royalists, the military and the urban middle class against a less well-off rural majority loyal to Thaksin and his populist policies.

Mr Abhisit appeared on television late yesterday, flanked by military commanders, to say a coup was not going to happen.

Thailand has seen 18 coups since 1932, and the military often has the final say in Thai politics, sometimes with the blessing of the revered king.

Reuters