Protesters laying siege to Bangkok's two airports braced for a battle with security forces after Thailand's prime minister declared a state of emergency to end a blockade that threatens to cripple the economy.
Protesters occupying Bangkok's airports vowed Friday to "fight to the death" after Thailand's prime minister declared a state of emergency and authorised police to storm the hijacked sites.
Police said they would negotiate with protesters before trying to evict them, fearing a bloody end to the siege, which has left thousands of tourists stranded and paralysed the government.
Premier Somchai Wongsawat had imposed emergency rule at the capital's international and domestic airports on Thursday night, saying that the demonstrators could not be allowed to hold the country hostage.
"We are not afraid. We will fight to the death, we will not surrender and we are ready," one of the main protest leaders, Somsak Kosaisuk, told a crowd of supporters at the domestic Don Mueang airport.
"If they crack down on us we will come back with more protesters."
Anti-government activists braced for an assault overnight, extending razor wire cordons to about three kilometres (two miles) around the flagship Suvarnabhumi international airport and blocking access roads, witnesses said.
Police say around 4,000 protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) -- a movement backed by elements of the palace, the army and Thailand's Bangkok-based elite -- have set up camp at Suvarnabhumi.
Another 2,500 more are at Don Mueang, where the cabinet's temporary offices have been located since protesters seized their headquarters at Government House in Bangkok in August.
The PAD have vowed not to quit until Somchai resigns, alleging that their arch-foe, exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, is the puppetmaster behind the government elected in December.
Thaksin, a telecoms tycoon, was ousted in a military coup in 2006 after similar protests led by the PAD. He remains in exile to avoid a jail term for graft.
Despite Somchai's state of emergency declaration, the police said they would try for talks with the airport protesters.
"We will use the gentle way first. The priority is to negotiate and not crack down immediately -- we are all Thais," regional deputy police commander Major General Piya Sorntrakoon told AFP.
Police said there was a small blast at a PAD television station in Bangkok overnight but caused no casualties. Reports said some gunshots were fired at Don Mueang early on Friday.
Somchai, who has been stuck in the northern city of Chiang Mai since returning from a foreign trip on Wednesday, said in a televised address that the navy and air force would back the police operations.
But tensions are running high between the government and the military in a nation that has seen 18 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. The army has already said it is opposed to the use of force against the protesters.
Clashes between police and demonstrators in Bangkok on October 7 left two people dead and around 500 wounded in the deadliest such incident in Thailand for 16 years.
The military denied rumours on Thursday that it was planning to launch a coup, following reports that Somchai was about to sack the powerful army chief for calling for the dissolution of the government.
Yet in a further sign of the civilian-military rift, government spokesman Suparat Nakbunnam said Somchai would remain in Chiang Mai "indefinitely."
"As there are still uncertainties in the tensions between the government and army, for his safety the prime minister will stay in Chiang Mai," Suparat told AFP.
With the crisis affecting Thailand's ties with the rest of the world, the Southeast Asian bloc ASEAN said its secretary general would travel to Thailand to assess whether a summit scheduled for December in Chiang Mai can proceed.
All flights to Bangkok remained cancelled, leaving tourists scrambling to fly out of the country from other airports or heading for train stations to travel down to Thailand's southern white sand beaches.
In a sign of growing public frustration with the protesters, Bangkok Post newspaper, which has often criticised Thaksin and his allies, said the PAD's occupation of the airports "can hardly be justified."
Date created : 2008-11-28