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 13 Apr 2009

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Chaos in Thailand:
Crackdown quells coup rumours

Thai soldiers unleashed hundreds of rounds of automatic weapons fire to clear anti-government protesters from a major intersection in the capital in the pre-dawn darkness Monday, reported the Associated Press.

Demonstrators responded by throwing at least one gasoline bomb at a line of troops. At least 49 people were reported hurt in the first serious clash between the two sides in ongoing protests that have roiled this Southeast Asian nation and came a day after the country's ousted prime minister called for a revolution.

While the government has declared a state of emergency, protesters controlled many streets in the capital Bangkok. They had earlier commandeered public buses and swarmed triumphantly over military vehicles in defiance.

In the starkest example of the chaos, a mob of the red-shirted protesters smashed cars carrying Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his aides on Sunday.

The clash began between 4am and 5am, as troops in full combat gear advanced to disperse the protesters, who were occupying a major junction, according to witnesses and television footage.

The soldiers fired hundreds of rounds from their M-16 automatic rifles, though it was unclear whether they were firing at or over the protesters. Some witnesses said tear gas was also fired and Associated Press reporters saw protesters hurl at least one gasoline bomb which exploded behind the army line.

At the nearby Century Park Hotel, foreign tourists were seen rushing into taxis and heading for Bangkok's international airport.

Monday marked the beginning of the Thai New Year, normally the country's most joyous holiday. The Bangkok municipal government canceled all its festivities, but despite the rioting many Thais and foreign tourists began engaging in the ritualistic water throwing and general partying.

Protesters set fires that were still burning 1- 1/2 hours later and retreated into side streets near the Din Daeng intersection, where there is an on-ramp to the main expressway leading north from the capital.

The clash appeared to be an isolated one, taking place several miles away from the main encampment of thousands of protesters outside the prime minister's offices.

Police Gen Vichai Sangparpai said up to 30,000 demonstrators were scattered around the city. Police vans at some intersections were abandoned and looted. Protesters used buses to barricade several major roads.
Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said soldiers and police were being moved to more than 50 key points in the city, including bus and railway stations. He said the military presence was not a sign of an imminent coup - a common feature of Thai political history.

It is the first time that the army has responded to the government's orders since Abhisit declared the emergency at lunchtime on Sunday and ordered tanks and soldiers onto the streets of Bangkok.

Abhisit, speaking in a nationally televised address just before midnight, called on the public not to panic and to cooperate to end the crisis. "In the next three to four days, the government will keep working to return peace and order to the country," he said.

Protests were also reported in several provinces of northern and northeastern Thailand. The protests could prompt the military to intervene - a high possibility in a country that has experienced 18 military coups since the 1930s.

In an apparent attempt to dispel speculation of a breakdown in the security chain of command, Abhisit was flanked by Cabinet members and top military and police officers during the address.

"They have tried to spread the rumour that there is no unity in the operation of (security) officials," he said. "We will try to continuously communicate correct information to the public."

Abhisit is under intense pressure to curb the unrest after the humiliating cancellation Saturday of a regional Asian summit in the resort of Pattaya, when authorities were forced to evacuate some foreign leaders by helicopter.

The unrest came after police arrested the leader of the summit protests, former pop singer Arisman Pongreungrong, on charges of inciting protesters to kidnap the prime minister and cause unrest.

Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, regarded by most of the protesters as their leader, called for a revolution and said he might return from exile to lead it. Thaksin fled the country last year, before a court convicted him in absentia of violating a conflict of interest law.

Thaksin, who lives in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption, stoked up the protesters in two separate phone-in speeches on Sunday night, saying: "You don't have to be frightened of this state of emergency."

"Now that they have tanks on the streets, it is time for the people to come out in revolution. And when it is necessary, I will come back to the country," he said in a telephoned message to followers outside Abhisit's office. The message was broadcast over a video link projected on giant screens and relayed on supporters' Internet sites.




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