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NEWS UPDATES 14 May 2010

Riots in Thai capital turn violent, again

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Thai troops fired bullets and tear gas at anti-government protesters rioting near the U.S. and Japanese embassies in an escalation of violence that turned central Bangkok into a virtual war zone after overnight clashes killed one person, the Associated Press reported.

The fighting, which has killed 30 people and injured hundreds since the Red Shirt protesters began camping in the capital on March 12, plunged Thailand deeper into political uncertainty, threatening the country's stability, economy and tourism industry.

The Red Shirts believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's coalition government came to power illegitimately through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military. They are demanding he dissolve Parliament immediately and call new elections.

"Use of force will not work. The government can't control the situation," said Nattawut Saikua, a protest leader.

The violence was limited to a small area in central Bangkok, close to the American and Japanese embassies, which were closed. The British, New Zealand and the Dutch embassies, which are in the vicinity, also were shut.

The area is in the commercial and diplomatic heart of Bangkok, which turned into a virtual war zone overnight with protesters fighting running street battles with troops. Some of the main boulevards were sealed off and covered in thick plumes of smoke from burning tires and a torched police bus. Sporadic gunshots were heard.

The Red Shirt protesters are trying to defend an upscale 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) area that they have turned into a barricaded encampment to press their demands. Some 10,000 of them have crammed into the area, vowing not to give up until the government resigns and early elections are called.

Soldiers crouched behind a raised road divider and fired rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas shells. Army vehicles were seen speeding on deserted streets littered with stones and debris.

Earlier, protesters captured and vandalized two military water cannon trucks at an intersection in the heart of the business district. They ripped the cannon from its moorings and used its plastic barrel to shoot firecrackers from behind a sandbag bunker they had commandeered from soldiers.

"I'm not scared. We are here only to ask for democracy. Why are we facing violence?" Mukda Saelim, 39, a mushroom farmer from Chonburi province, said inside the Red Shirt encampment. "I don't have anything to fight them, but I'm not afraid. You asked if this is safe? It's not."

Chances of a compromise have virtually evaporated after renegade army Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, who is accused of creating a paramilitary force for the Red Shirts, was shot in the head Thursday evening. He was talking to reporters just inside the perimeter of the protesters' encampment in Saladeng when the bullet hit him.

He was taken to a hospital in a coma and was in critical condition. Hospital director Dr. Chaiwan Charoenchokthawee said Khattiya "could die at any moment." It was not known who shot Khattiya, better known by the nickname Seh Daeng. But the Red Shirts blamed a government sniper.

"This is illegal use of force ordered by Abhisit Vejjajiva," said Arisman Pongruengrong, a Red Shirt leader. "It is clear that there were no clashes at Saladeng, but Seh Daeng was shot by a government sniper. This is clearly a use of war weapons on the people."

The army denied it tried to kill Khattiya. "It has nothing to do with the military. It has never been our policy (to assassinate). We have been avoiding violence," said Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, an army spokesman. Only a forensic investigation will determine who was behind the shooting, he said.

The two-day clashes marked the worst continuous episode of violence since April 10, when 25 people were killed and more than 800 injured in clashes between Red Shirts and troops in Bangkok's historic area. Four more people were killed in subsequent clashes.

The Red Shirts see Abhisit's government as serving an elite insensitive to the plight of most Thais. The protesters include many supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist leader accused of corruption and abuse of power and ousted in a 2006 military coup. His allies won elections in 2007 but two subsequent pro-Thaksin governments were disbanded by court rulings and Abhisit was named prime minister in a vote by lawmakers.

Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire who fled overseas to avoid a corruption conviction, has publicly encouraged the protests and is widely believed to be helping bankroll them. He claims to be a victim of political persecution.


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