Troops take to street to protect financial hub
Hundreds of Thai troops poured in to protect Bangkok's financial hub Monday, raising the stakes in the stand-off between the government and "Red Shirt" protesters who support ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
AFP - Hundreds of Thai troops poured into central Bangkok to protect the capital's financial hub on Monday, raising the stakes in the stand-off between the government and "Red Shirt" protesters.
AFP reporters saw military and riot police, many of them with weapons, deployed in the central financial district, known as Silom, close to the Reds' current rally base in the capital's commercial heartland.
"There are several units currently armed to prevent themselves from attacks from terrorists who are hiding among protesters," government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told AFP.
Some troops hunkered down with their weapons on overpasses located above Silom's major thoroughfare, while others napped on the sidewalk after the deployment which took place in the early hours of the morning.
Security personnel had stacked uncoiled barbed wire at the roadside. Many were seen armed with assault rifles and shotguns while some had only riot shields.
Panitan would not comment on whether a crackdown was imminent against the protesters, who are demanding the ouster of embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
"The plan to retake the area remains but operational units will analyse how and when to avoid confrontation and clashes," he said.
A soldier, asking not to be named, said they were there to block the Reds if they came up Silom Road. "We will not attack them, we are blocking them," he told AFP.
The deployment was the first by the military on the tense streets of Bangkok since a failed crackdown on the anti-government protesters nine days ago that left 25 people dead and more than 800 injured.
The "Red Shirts", mainly supporters of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup, have occupied the capital for over a month, causing massive disruption to business, especially the tourism industry.
The Reds say that Abhisit's government is illegitimate because it came to power in a parliamentary vote, not a popular election, and that it is the tool of Thailand's elite in palace, military and bureaucratic circles.
A rival faction, the "Yellow Shirts" who are backed by the country's elite, vowed Sunday to take matters into their own hands if the government fails to deal with the protesters within a week, raising fears of clashes.
Yellow protesters in 2008 blockaded Bangkok's two main airports, leading to to a controversial court verdict that ousted Thaksin's allies and allowed the parliamentary vote that brought in the current government.
"If they gather peacefully, it will not be problem. But the people do not want more tensions with several groups of protesters," Panitan said of the threat of Yellows retaliation.
Abhisit handed broader powers to his army chief Anupong Paojinda on Friday after an operation to arrest senior protesters was badly bungled, allowing them to escape with their supporters.
The Reds announced plans on Sunday to step up their campaign for snap polls by boosting their numbers on Tuesday in the commercial area they are currently occupying in the heart of the city.
Army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said the military would "contain" the protesters. "We will have police and soldiers working together," he told AFP Sunday.
The Reds have so far ignored calls by the authorities to disperse from their base in an upmarket retail and hotel district, despite security forces being positioned on top of the area's skyscrapers and outstanding arrest warrants in place against core leaders.
Leader Nattawut Saikuar said Saturday that 24 senior Reds would hand themselves over to police on May 15 to avoid another attempt to forcibly arrest them after a bungled operation Friday, but he added that they would seek bail.
"For now the 24 of us will keep rallying to show sincerely that we won't run away," he said. "I'm sure the order to suppress us will come out soon."