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'Red Shirt' protesters defy deadline to evacuate fortified camp

©

Video by Jonathan CRANE

Latest update : 2010-05-17

Thousands of Thai 'Red Shirt' protesters defied a deadline to leave their fortified protest site in central Bangkok as troops closed in Monday. The leaders of the protesters have offered a truce after five days of street clashes.

AFP - Thousands of protesters in the Thai capital defied a deadline to leave their fortified camp Monday as their leaders offered a truce after five days of street clashes that have left 37 people dead.

The escalating violence has turned parts of the city into no-go zones as troops use live ammunition against protesters, who have blocked streets with burning tyres and fought back, mainly with homemade weapons.
   
Protest leader Nattawut Saikuar telephoned a top aide to the prime minister to offer to call Reds back to the main protest camp from outlying areas, where fierce street battles have occurred, said the aide Korbsak Sabhavasu.
  

"The Thai expect their king to mediate the crisis, but so far he has done nothing"


"He said that if soldiers stop firing, he will call protesters back to the Ratchaprasong site," Korbsak Sabhavasu said.
  
"If he calls protesters back to Ratchaprasong site and stops the action around Bangkok, there will be no more bullets fired by soldiers. Soldiers have not invaded the protest site," said Korbsak, the premier's secretary-general.
   
Protesters were ordered to leave by 3:00 pm (0800 GMT) Monday. Authorities dropped leaflets from a small plane flying overhead asking people to evacuate the area, which remained calm by late evening.
   
Normally bustling streets in much of the capital almost emptied, as Thai hospitals were put on alert to receive heavy casualties in the event security forces attempted to clear the Reds' encampment.
   
But defiant Red Shirts were seen dancing and a Buddhist monk led prayers on the stage inside the rally site, where the government said an estimated 3,000 people remained despite the threat of forced dispersal.
   
"The operation (to disperse) will be executed as soon as possible," said    Satit Wonghnongtaey, minister attached to the prime minister's office.
   
H

e said the authorities would "do everything possible" to tell the Reds to leave, using television and radio messages, loudspeaker trucks and leaflets.
   
Those who stay face two years in prison, the government said, warning also that their lives are at risk from "terrorist attack" at the rally site.
  
Thai authorities said Sunday they would send the Red Cross to help evacuate the area of women, children and the elderly who wanted to leave.
  
But there was no rush to leave the camp where men, children and women -- including a breast-feeding mother -- remained on Monday.
   
Earlier in the day, behind a Red Shirt barricade on the edge of the camp Vinit Virangtong, 43, dragged a suitcase deeper inside the danger zone.
  
"I'm staying here but I'm moving inside," he said. "The situation is now dangerous. They're shooting into here and it's not safe."
   
The recent spate of heavy violence began after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva shelved a plan to hold early elections -- which the Red Shirts initially agreed to -- because the protesters refused to disperse.
  
Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol, a key Red supporter known as Seh Daeng, died in hospital on Monday as the toll from street violence since late Thursday hit 37 dead, including the general, and more than 270 injured, officials said.
  
About 1,000 people attended a funeral for the slain general at a pagoda in the city's historic district. Some mourners wept as his body was carried in an open casket in his distinctive camouflage hat.
  
The government has ordered schools not to reopen after summer holidays, and it
declared two days of national holidays to keep civilians off the streets.
   
Commuter train services were shut for the third straight day and large parts of the city -- including the Silom financial and entertainment district -- remained too risky to enter.
  
Early Monday, guests at a luxury hotel in the city of 12 million people were forced to shelter in the basement after the building came under gunfire and was rattled by an explosion on the fringes of the Red camp.
   
The Reds consider the government illegitimate because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ruling ousted elected allies of their hero, telecoms tycoon turned former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
  
Thaksin called on the government and his Red Shirt supporters in a Monday statement to step back from a "terrible abyss" and start talks to end violence.
   
Australia became the latest country to close its Bangkok embassy to visitors.
   
The crisis has now left 66 people dead and about 1,700 wounded. Twenty-five people died in a failed army crackdown on April 10.

Date created : 2010-05-17

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