Thai protesters, army locked in standoff

May 16, 2010 12:00 am

, BANGKOK, May 16 – Troops and anti-government protesters were locked in a tense standoff Sunday after two days of urban warfare in Thai capital Bangkok left at least 24 dead and almost 200 people wounded.

Eight people died on Saturday in clashes between the "Red Shirt" protesters and soldiers who have sealed off the demonstrators\’ sprawling base in the centre of the city but emergency services reported no fresh casualties early Sunday.

On the southern and northern fringes of the protesters\’ vast encampment, smoke rose from two areas where troops and demonstrators clashed Saturday.

Flames rose from a bridge and intermittent explosions, likely firecrackers launched by the demonstrators, sounded around streets strewn with debris.

Late Saturday Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva vowed there would be no turning back on the government\’s policy of sealing the protesters inside their fortified camp.

More than 50 people have been killed and 1,600 have been wounded since the protests began two months ago, according to figures from the emergency services and the public health ministry.

The Reds are trying to bring down the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying it is elitist and undemocratic because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ruling ousted elected allies of their hero, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

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.

Two days of clashes left 24 people dead — none of them troops — and 198 people wounded.

But Abhisit, in a national address late Saturday said despite his sadness over a "large number" of deaths in the operation, which began Thursday night, the containment policy would continue.

"It\’s crucial that we don\’t turn back and allow those who violate the law and establish armed militants to intimidate the government," he said.

He alleged that armed "terrorists" are mixed in with the protesters, who number in the thousands.

The military declared a "live fire zone" in one area where a foreign witness said he earlier saw troops fire towards a group of Red Shirts advancing with a Thai flag.

Against a military armed with assault rifles, the protesters have fought back with homemade weapons including fireworks, rockets, slingshots, and burning tyres. Related article: Bangkok protesters, residents live in fear

An AFP photographer saw one demonstrator firing a handgun on Saturday.

Abhisit last week shelved a plan to hold early elections — which the Red Shirts initially agreed to — because the protesters refused to disperse.

"The current situation is almost full civil war," said a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan. "I am not sure how this conflict will end."

The army warned it would move against the demonstrators\’ main rally site unless they disperse, but it gave no timetable for the action.

All commuter train service remained shut Sunday because of the violence.

The United States warned Saturday against all travel to Bangkok and authorised the evacuation of non-essential embassy staff and families.

Thailand has been riven by years of political turmoil since Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006. Key dates in Thailand\’s political unrest

Thai society is deeply divided between the urban elite and rural poor, with most of the Red Shirts from the north and impoverished northeast.

Their 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 and is fortified with razor wire, bamboo stakes and piles of tyres.


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