Monday, November 29, 1999

Thai prime minister warns of crackdown

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Bangkok, May 15 (DPA) Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned Saturday of an imminent crackdown on an anti-government protest that has paralysed central Bangkok for more than a month, leading to at least 51 deaths.'We can't turn back,' Abhisit said in a national address on Channel 3 TV Saturday night. 'We want to restore the state's legal power, peace and normalcy.'The statement was issued as Thai troops surrounded the followers of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) at their protest site on Ratchaprasong Road, in the heart of Bangkok's upmarket commercial district.The protesters, also known as the Red Shirts, have occupied Rathcaprasong since April 3, in a bid to force Abhisit to dissolve parliament and hold new elections.There are more than 6,000 Red Shirts still barricaded at the intersection and surrounding areas. Abhisit said authorities would cooperate in evacuating all women and children from the protest site.The government launched an offensive to clear Ratchaprasong of the UDD protesters Thursday, after failing to get the leadership to accept a peace proposal that included an agreement to hold elections Nov 14.Over the past three days fierce street fighting between troops and red shirts has left 22 dead, including six slain Saturday.Saturday, troops fired on UDD demonstrators trying to break through to Ratchaprasong intersection. The army Saturday afternoon declared Ratchaprasong a 'free-fire zone,' forbidding civilians and journalists from entering the area.The escalating violence has drawn concern from the international community and calls for a peaceful solution.UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed 'to both the protesters and the Thai authorities to do all within their power to avoid further violence and loss of life.'But the Thai government appeared determined to use force to end the protest, which has paralysed the centre of Bangkok for more than a month.'There is a plan to crack down on Ratchaprasong if the rally does not end,' Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, spokesman for the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES), told a press conference.The government has refused to resume negotiations with the protest movement, which earlier this week essentially rejected a peace proposal offered by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.The army by Friday had secured the roads surrounding the Ratchaprasong intersection and Lumpini Park, where protesters have barricaded themselves behind tyres, barbed wire and sharpened bamboo shafts.Troops were deployed to prevent more protesters from getting into the site as reinforcements or to bring supplies.The government's emergency command centre has cut off electricity, water and food supplies to the Ratchaprasong neighbourhood in an effort to force them to end their protest.Abhisit agreed May 3 to hold an election Nov 14 and to set up a national reconciliation road map to address some of the social issues raised by the protest and pave the way for peaceful polls, on the condition that the UDD disperse.But the UDD insisted that Abhisit and his deputy prime minister in charge of security, Suthep Thaugsuban, be legally accountable for a previous crackdown on its followers April 10, which left 25 dead.The movement, which claims to be fighting for democracy and a better deal for the long-neglected rural and urban poor, has many supporters in the countryside.Since the protest began March 12, 51 people have died and more than 1,000 have been injured.

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