Thai soldiers repel protesters

April 10, 2010 12:00 am

, BANGKOK, Apr 10 – Dozens of anti-government "Red Shirt" protesters tried to force their way into a military base in Bangkok on Saturday but were driven back by water cannon as tensions ran high in the capital.

Riot police were also seen near the Red Shirts\’ mass rally in the capital\’s commercial hub as a military helicopter buzzed overhead, a day after security forces used tear gas against protesters who stormed a television broadcaster.

About 200 protesters surrounded the First Army regional headquarters in Bangkok\’s old city but were repelled by water cannon, said army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, adding that nobody was hurt in the incident.

The army said it had deployed armoured personnel vehicles at some locations in the city to prevent the Red Shirts from forcing their way inside.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has insisted he would not cede to the Reds\’ demand for snap elections, after they stormed a television broadcaster and managed to put their channel back on air for a few hours.

Thousands of demonstrators continued to occupy a key intersection in the main commercial district of the Thai capital, the scene of weeks of mass rallies aimed at overthrowing the government.

Tens of thousands of police and soldiers have been mobilised to restore order, but top Reds remained defiant in the face of signs that the army might be preparing to disperse the demonstrators in the commercial hub.

"I\’d like to tell Abhisit that you can come and crack down on our rally anytime," a Red Shirt leader, Nattawut Saikuar, said from the rally stage set up in the heart of Bangkok that has become the focus of the protests.

"We want to stay until you dissolve the House."

The Reds, many of whom support ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, accuse the government of being illegitimate because it came to power with military backing in 2008 after a court ousted Thaksin\’s allies from power.

But the army\’s apparent reluctance to use force to end the rallies has fanned talk of "watermelon" soldiers — green on the outside due to their uniforms, but red on the inside owing to their sympathy with the protesters.

Many troops were seen retreating Friday and shaking hands with demonstrators outside the Thaicom TV broadcaster, where security forces used tear gas and water cannon in a vain attempt to repel the protesters.

The Reds managed to restore their anti-government People Television (PTV), which was shut down Thursday under emergency rule aimed at quelling the turmoil. But troops later retook the building, pulling the plug again.

"The station is now totally under military control," said Sunsern.

Arrest warrants have been issued for many of the top leaders of the red-clad movement, but so far none are reported to have been taken into custody.

Abhisit, who remained holed up at an army barracks, insisted his government would not back down.

"I instructed all officials, police and soldiers that we have no right to be disheartened or fail with this mission," he said late Friday, adding that the top priority was to uphold the rule of the law.

A grenade exploded at the Police Crime Suppression Division unit in a northern suburb of Bangkok early Saturday but no one was hurt, officials said — the latest in a series of minor blasts.

The rallies are the latest chapter in years of political turmoil in Thailand pitting Bangkok\’s ruling elite against the mainly poor and rural Reds.

The country has been riven by political tensions since a bloodless coup ousted telecoms tycoon-turned-premier Thaksin in 2006.


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