Monday, November 29, 1999

Thai violence spirals, both sides seek reinforcements

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Thai troops and snipers opened fire on protesters on Saturday in fighting that spiralled into chaotic urban warfare on Bangkok's streets, killing at least 22 people in two days, as both sides sought reinforcements.Struggling to isolate a sprawling encampment of demonstrators seeking to topple the government, soldiers fired live rounds at protesters who fought back with petrol bombs, rocks and crude homemade rockets in two major areas of the city."We will not retreat," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a televised statement, saying the operation was the only way to restore peace and order. "We cannot let the country fall into a state where the lawless reign."Protesters set fire to vehicles, including an army truck, and hurled rocks at troops who set up razor wire at checkpoints.A sign at one intersection warned residents not to enter a "live bullet area". Another at a separate site warned of a "rubber bullet area." Both were later taken down.Residents were asked to show identification to prevent people from joining the mostly rural and urban poor "red shirts", most of whom support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup that triggered the five-year crisis.By nightfall, thousands of the red-shirted protesters had massed around an intersection in the working-class Klong Toey district, using a truck as a makeshift stage for protest leaders, in a possible move toward setting up a separate sit-in site.Troops shot four people, including a medical rescue worker who was feared dead, in the area about 2 km (1.2 miles) from Bangkok's business district.The Public Health Ministry said at least 24 people had been killed and 179 wounded since fighting began Thursday night with the shooting of a renegade general allied with the protesters.The toll was expected to rise sharply, with fighting continuing into the night in two areas of the city of 15 million people.EVACUATINGWitnesses described the fighting as one-sided, as troops armed with automatic rifles easily dodged projectiles and opened fire. Soldiers can shoot if protesters come within 36 metres (120 ft), said army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd."I cannot say how many troops are deployed because of security concerns, but there will be reinforcements to help troops seal the area and step up pressure on protesters," Sansern told reporters.The U.S. Embassy offered to evacuate families and partners of U.S. government staff based in Bangkok on a voluntary basis, and urged its citizens against any travel to Bangkok.The fighting followed a long night of grenade explosions and sporadic gunfire as the army battled to set up a perimeter around the 3.5 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) barricaded encampment where thousands refuse to leave, including women and children.At Din Daeng intersection, north of the main protest site, three bodies were evacuated on stretchers, a Reuters witness said. Two suffered head wounds apparently from sniper bullets."The troops may be making some progress on sealing the area but at a great cost," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, adding rising casualties could weaken Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva."Is the government successfully dispersing the crowd and progressing toward ending the crisis? The answer is no, not so far, and it's a long way to go."The crisis has paralysed Bangkok, squeezed Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy, scared off tourists and choked investment in one of Asia's most promising emerging markets.It has also stunned "Bangkokians" as one of the world's most bustling cities and tourist hot spots descends into a war zone."My ears are ringing with all the shooting last night," said Ratana Veerasawat, a 48-year-old owner of a hole-in-the-wall grocery store north of the protest encampment where many residents were leaving for safer locations.U.N EXPRESSES CONCERNUnited Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern over "the rapidly mounting tensions and violence", and called for resumption of dialogue between the two sides.The Canadian government urged both sides to return to talks after a Bangkok-based Canadian journalist was shot three times, one of four journalists wounded in fighting that has spiralled into chaotic urban warfare where front lines shift quickly.Protesters remained defiant."We'll keep on fighting," said one protest leader, Kwanchai Praipana, calling on Abhisit to resign to take responsibility for the deadliest political crisis in 18 years.He said supplies of food, water and fuel were starting to run thin as their usual delivery trucks were blocked, but that they had enough to last "days".Protest numbers dropped overnight in the main encampment barricaded with walls of kerosene-soaked tyres, sharpened bamboo staves and concrete blocks topped with razor wire.Several thousand remained, singing, cheering to fiery speeches and bracing for a crackdown in the area of luxury hotels, department stores, embassies and high-end apartments.Some of their leaders, including the movement's chairman, haven't been seen for days. Those at the site wore flak jackets, fearing snipers. They all face criminal charges."I am not scared," said Sanae Promman, a 37-year-old protester frying vegetables in a wok under a tent at the site. "Some of my friends have left because they are scared but many are still here to fight. We will fight until we die if we must."The fighting is the latest eruption in a five-year crisis between the rural and urban poor, who accuse an "establishment elite" -- comprising royalists, big business and military brass -- of colluding to bring down two elected governments.Those governments were led or backed by Thaksin, who has lives abroad to avoid jail on a graft conviction.The red shirts and their supporters say the politically powerful military influenced a 2008 parliamentary vote, which took place after a pro-Thaksin party was dissolved, to ensure the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit rose to power.(Additional reporting by Martin Petty, Jerry Lampen, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Ploy Ten Kate, Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul and Thin Lei Win; Editing by Bill Tarrant)
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