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NEWS UPDATES 13 May 2010

Thai forces to block red shirt rally site

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Foreboding a possible crackdown, Thailand's government said Thursday it will move armored personnel carriers and snipers into a posh Bangkok neighborhood to choke off the thousands of protesters who have besieged it for weeks, the Associated Press.

Officials said sharpshooters with live ammunition will take up vantage positions; public transportation will be suspended at 6 p.m. (1100 GMT); and work places have been asked to let their staff go home early. Water and electricity supplies to the area may be cut off.

The steps signaled a sense of desperation in the government that has been ineffectual in dislodging the "Red Shirt" protesters who have occupied a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) area in the Rajprasong area of the capital to demand new elections.

"(We) want to return normalcy to the people as quickly as possible," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajvia told reporters. He also said he rescinded his offer to hold elections on Nov. 14 because the protesters have refused to end their sit-in.

The protesters believe Abhisit's coalition government came to power illegitimately through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and have occupied parts of the capital since March 12. Clashes with security forces and other violence have killed at least 29 people and injured 1,400.

Thousands of Red Shirts have barricaded themselves behind tires and bamboo spears in the neighborhood of upscale shopping malls, hotels, apartments, embassies and hospitals.

The government late Wednesday suspended a threat to cut electricity, heeding pleas from residents and foreign diplomats in the area who said the impact would be greater on them than on the protesters.

Armored personnel carriers will be used to seal off entrances to the area and help escort out protesters who want to leave, said Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the spokesman of an agency in charge of suppressing the protest.

Sharpshooters with guns and live ammunition will take up position, but no heavy armory will be used, he said.

"The measures implemented today are merely to pressure the protesters and this is not to return the area to the public," said Sansern. "The authorities will execute every step according to international standards."

From behind their barricades, leaders of the Red Shirts were defiant.

"Firstly, we are using our own electricity generators, so we are not dependent on the public power source," said one, Jatuporn Prompan. "Secondly, if the government decides to cut water ... this will also affect half of the city. So we do not care about the government's threat."

Another leader, Nattawut Saikua, told reporters that "We have made a decision to hold our ground here to call for justice for our people. We are going to stay here no matter what happens."

Major shopping malls along the occupied streets closed weeks ago and some luxury hotels have shut their doors to guests.

The Red Shirts, who are largely drawn from the rural and urban poor, 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 who was accused of corruption and abuse of power and ousted in a 2006 military coup.

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

After agreeing last week in principle to Abhisit's offer of November polls, the protesters later said they would stay put until the deputy prime minister faces criminal charges for violence during the protests.


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