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Urban warfare erupts in Bangkok as troops and protesters clash

Video by Cyril PAYEN

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-05-15

The Thai army has threatened a full-scale crackdown on the anti-government protests in Bangkok if demonstrators do not disperse. Eight people were killed and at least 187 injured Saturday as troops clashed with opposition protesters.

AFP - Raging violence in the heart of the Thai capital claimed eight more lives Saturday as the embattled premier vowed no turning back and the army threatened a crackdown on thousands of protesters.
   
Two days of street battles between soldiers and anti-government "Red Shirts" have left 24 people dead, all civilians, and 187 wounded. The military declared one area of Bangkok a "live fire zone" as troops struggled to regain control.
   

Scenes of urban warfare erupted on the southern and northern fringes of the Red Shirts' sprawling encampment in the heart of Bangkok, after the army moved in Thursday to seal off the area.
   
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who last week shelved a plan to hold early elections because the protesters refused to disperse, warned the government "cannot turn back" in the two-month standoff.
   
Soldiers opened fire on demonstrators, some of them armed or hurling Molotov cocktails, as plumes of black smoke billowed from burning tyres.
   
Three bodies were seen lying on the ground in the area where the military posted a sign declaring live ammunition was being used, according to an AFP photographer.
   
More than 50 people have been killed and 1,600 wounded since the protests began on March 12, according to figures from the emergency services and the public health ministry.
   
"The current situation is almost full civil war," said a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan. "I am not sure how this conflict will end."
   
Protesters rolled burning tyres at soldiers and launched fireworks at helicopters hovering over the capital, which is under a state of emergency.
   
The army warned it would move against the demonstrators' main rally site unless they disperse, but it gave no timetable for the action.
   
"There is a plan to crack down on Ratchaprasong if the protest does not end," said army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd.
   
"But authorities will not set a deadline because without effective planning there will be more loss of life."
   
For two months thousands of protesters have turned a large area of Bangkok into a virtual state within a state, crippling a retail and hotel district and disrupting daily life for residents in the city of 12 million people.
   
Vietnam, as chair of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc which includes Thailand, called on all parties "to refrain from violence and seek peace talks".
   
The United States warned against all travel to Bangkok and authorised the evacuation of non-essential embassy staff and families.
   
In the Silom business and tourism hub, close to the main rally base, two men were shot and badly wounded after about 30 protesters, one armed with a handgun, clashed with troops, an AFP photographer said.
   
The Red Shirts were throwing stones and Molotov cocktails when the shooting occurred.
   
Numerous M-79 grenades had been fired at security forces in various areas on the edges of the protest site overnight, a government spokesman said, and there were reports of more grenades exploding Saturday.
   
The kingdom has been riven by years of political turmoil since the Reds' hero, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006. Its society is deeply divided between the urban elite and rural poor.
   
The rally site, where demonstrators sleep on mats on the ground and listen to speeches and music blasted from giant speakers, stretches for several square kilometres (miles) and is fortified with razor wire, bamboo stakes and piles of tyres.
   
The mostly poor and working class Reds say the government is elitist and undemocratic because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ruling ousted elected allies of Thaksin.
   
A Thai court handed six-month jail sentences to 27 protesters arrested during Friday's clashes.
   
A journalist, a photographer for The Nation newspaper, was injured and in a serious condition after a bullet shattered a bone in his leg while covering Saturday's clashes, further underlining the risks facing media in Bangkok.
   
He was the fourth journalist to be shot and injured in just two days in the capital, where a Japanese cameraman was killed last month during unrest.
   
On Thursday night renegade general Khattiya Sawasdipol, a key Red Shirt supporter, was shot in the head near the rally site.
   
His condition had slightly improved Saturday but he was still in a critical state, said Chaiwan Charoenchokethavee, director of the Vachira hospital.
   
Protest leaders have called for the intervention of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82. But the monarch, seen as a unifying force, has been hospitalised since September and has avoided commenting directly in public on the crisis.

Date created : 2010-05-15

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