Airport blockades enter 5th day; 100,000 travellers stranded

Tensions are high as pro- and antigovernment protesters hold rival demonstrations, blocking the nation's airports. Suvarnabhumi airport general manager Serirat Prasutanond said reopening the Bangkok terminal would take at least a week.


(AFP) Thousands of red-clad government supporters rallied in downtown Bangkok Sunday, stoking tensions after grenade attacks wounded dozens from a rival group that has occupied Thailand's main airports.

The demonstration added to the political turmoil paralysing the kingdom, which has left foreign nations scrambling to evacuate around 100,000 tourists trapped in Thailand by the anti-government airport blockade.

Wearing red headbands emblazoned with the words "No Coup", backers of the current administration and of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra raised fears of violence by rallying for the first time in the six-day stand-off.

"We gather here today to protect the democratic system, to say we don't want a coup," said Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the pro-government group known as the "Red Shirts", adding that they would stay there until Thursday.

Police said about 15,000 supporters had massed as night fell Sunday, but that the situation remained peaceful.

The government's failure to end the occupation of Bangkok's two airports by its foes in the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has sparked speculation of a repeat of the putsch that toppled Thaksin in 2006.

The PAD -- whose supporters wear yellow in what they say is a symbol of their desire to protect Thailand's revered monarchy -- have refused to budge until Thaksin's brother-in-law, Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, resigns.

The demonstration took place about five kilometres (three miles) away from where a grenade attack early on Sunday wounded 49 PAD supporters who have occupied the nearby prime minister's cabinet offices since August.

"Whatever happens, we will fight," senior PAD leader Chamlong Srimuang told reporters at the site earlier.

Hours later, a blast outside the domestic Don Mueang airport injured two passers-by, police said. A grenade was also found at the offices of a party in the ruling coalition but did not go off.

Grenade attacks this month at the premier's besieged offices killed two protesters and prompted the PAD to launch its "final battle" to topple the government.

Thai authorities used carrot and stick tactics Sunday to end the siege at Don Mueang and the larger Suvarnabhumi international airport.

Police said fresh talks had started at both airports. But they later issued a new order to protesters at Don Mueang, warning that they faced two years in jail if they did not disperse.

"Time is running out but we still have time to find a solution. Police will work with compromise, no force, no weapons," said Pongsapat Pongcharoen, assistant to the national police chief.

At Suvarnabhumi, PAD guards were still entrenched behind barricades of tyres, wooden stakes and razor wire. They have armed themselves with golf clubs, sticks and other weapons.

But there was a thin police presence around the airport, and most protesters inside the gleaming terminal building opened in 2006 were sleeping, AFP correspondents said.

The PAD accuses Somchai's government of being a corrupt puppet for Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon who is in exile to avoid corruption charges.

Supporters of the group have backing from elements in the military, palace and urban middle classes.

The apparent stalemate has prompted speculation that the rival factions are waiting for other events scheduled this week.

The Constitutional Court is due Tuesday to wrap up a case that could see the ruling party disbanded for fraud and Somchai and other leaders banned from politics.

Meanwhile deeply-respected King Bhumibol Adulyadej is due to give a speech on Thursday, the eve of his birthday.

Foreign countries meanwhile arranged more flights for their stranded nationals through the Vietnam War-era naval base at U-Tapao, 190 kilometres (118 miles) from Bangkok.

"They have killed tourism in this country, the authorities should go do something," said tourist Danny Mosaffi, 57, from New York City as he waited for a flight.

Thailand's neighbours are also concerned.

The head of the Southeast Asian bloc ASEAN, Surin Pitsuwan, said Sunday time was "running short" for Thailand to hold a major summit next month and that a delay would enable better preparations.


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