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Asia-pacific

Government supporters rally to counter opposition protests

Video by Aurore Cloé DUPUIS

Latest update : 2008-12-01

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's supporters (photo) have organised a mass rally in Bangkok on Sunday, prompting fears they may clash with opposition protesters. Thai police have told opponents to end their blockade of the city's airports.

(Reuters) - Thai police on Sunday again ordered anti-government protesters who have laid siege to the city's airports to disperse, banning gatherings of more than five people and warning offenders would be jailed or fined.

 

Hours after a grenade blast wounded more than 50 protesters, and ahead of a big rally in the Thai capital planned by government supporters, the five-point statement did not say how police intended to enforce the emergency rules.

 

Flights in and out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International airport and the mostly-domestic Don Muang airport have been paralysed by a siege by People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters seeking to overthrow the government.

 

Sunday's statement was issued by Lieutenant-General Suchart Muenkaew Chief, the police negotiator at Don Muang airport. A separate police division is responsible for Suvarnabhumi.

 

Much earlier, a grenade was thrown at Government House, the prime minister's office occupied by PAD supporters since August.

 

The grenade blast at Government House was the latest aimed at the PAD supporters there and was among the most bloody. A PAD spokesman said 51 people were wounded, four critically.

 

The sit-ins at Suvarnabhumi and the city's domestic hub, Don Muang, are the latest escalation in the PAD's "final battle" to unseat a prime minister it accuses of being a front for former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

 

Thaksin, who is Somchai's brother-in-law, was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and lives in exile.

 

He still has strong support among the urban and rural poor, and the pro-Thaksin Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) says it will bring 100,000 supporters to central Bangkok on Sunday afternoon in a show of support for the government.

 

Alleged bias

 

Veera Musikapong, a DAAD leader, told the Nation newspaper one focus of the rally would be the alleged bias of the courts.

 

The Constitutional Court has moved with uncharacteristic speed to conclude a vote fraud case on Tuesday, widely expected to lead to the disbanding of Somchai's People Power Party (PPP) and two other partners in the ruling coalition.

 

"It is obvious that there is interference with justice. It was well planned, and this is a concealed coup," Veera said.

 

If the court dissolves the three parties, Somchai and other leaders would be barred from politics and many cabinet ministers would have to step down.

 

Police said they would try to keep the rival political groups away from each other.

 

On Saturday night, about 150 riot police fled a checkpoint near Suvarnabhumi after they were attacked by PAD militants armed with iron rods and slingshots and hurling firecrackers.

 

The chaos caused by the airport sit-ins has sparked rumours of a military coup, even though the army chief has said he will not seize control. Somchai has rejected military calls to hold a snap election.

 

Deputy Prime Minister Olarn Chaipravat said the damage to Thailand's image, at a peak time for tourism, may cut arrivals by half to 6-7 million in 2009 and threatens a million jobs.

 

The government is shuttling tourists to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 150 km (90 miles) east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines, but travellers have complained of massive delays and confusion.

 

Foreign governments are increasingly concerned.

 

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said hundreds of Australians were stranded in Thailand and national carrier Qantas had offered to put on extra flights to take them home.

 

"It's very frustrating for us and it's very frustrating for those stranded Australians," he told Australian television.

 

There was one bit of good news on Sunday. Around 460 Thai Muslims who have been sleeping at Suvarnabhumi since their flight to Mecca was cancelled by the protests are to do their pilgrimage after all, thanks to a chartered Iran Air flight from U-Tapao.

 

"We are leaving today, finally," said Yusuf Waedaramae, 33, a Thai living in Australia who had come to Bangkok to take his mother to the haj.

 

Date created : 2008-11-30

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