Thai army clashes with anti-government protesters (Second Lead)

April 13th, 2009 - 2:30 pm ICT by IANS  

Abhisit Vejjajiva Bangkok, April 13 (DPA) Thai soldiers fired shots at protesters driving buses at them and used tear gas against demonstrators blocking a main road junction in Bangkok Monday in a major escalation of political violence in the kingdom.
Medical authorities said scores of people had been treated for injuries, after troops tried to clear the major central intersection at Victory Monument, which had been occupied by anti-government protesters.

Scores of red-shirt wearing motorcyclists arrived at the intersection in an apparent effort to reinforce protesters still occupying the area Monday afternoon.

Battle-ready soldiers, many of them brought in from the Cambodian border, fired into the air and anti-riot police fired tear gas in an effort to disperse the protesters.

Some of the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the troops and set several buses on fire.

Army troops started moving into the area early Monday in what appeared to be a slow but firm start to the anticipated crackdown against thousands of red-shirt protesters loyal to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who have shut down much of central Bangkok.

The clashes started before dawn, some distance from the centre of the main anti-government demonstration in the streets around Government House, the office of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Much of the city was shut down for the Thai New Year holiday of Songkran, but the violence also kept cars off the streets and several of the main shopping centres were closed and intersections blocked with commandeered buses.

Earlier, troops marched towards protesters, backed by water cannon. When a bold protestor reversed a city bus towards the lines of advancing soldiers they unleashed a tremendous fusillade - stopping the bus.

The military - under great pressure from the government to finally act decisively - was attempting to clear the streets of taunting protesters, many on motorbikes.

The 10,000 or so demonstrators at a main protest rally at Government House, however, remained a more daunting challenge. At least two buses were set on fire there; dozens more have been used to block roads and ferry protesters around the city.

Other troops were moving to clear protesters out of the Foreign Ministry grounds, said witnesses. Officers said they were under orders to clear the streets as quickly as possible.

Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the army spokesman, said troops first tried to negotiate with the protesters. The talks broke down after some protesters tried to ram buses against the soldiers, troops at the scene said.

Police said about 30,000 protesters had seized many road junctions near the seat of government, commandeered several city buses and erected makeshift barricades.

A government announcement on television in the early afternoon said soldiers were moving to secure airports, ports and strategic infrastructure so that no one need worry about being cut off in Thailand.

Several governments have issued travel advisories against visiting the kingdom.

Some protesters at roadblocks had stacks of Molotov cocktails on hand. “We are not going to move. What are they going to do? Kill us all?” said Chaiya Chaiwichayakul, 33, a stonemason, at a roadblock about 500 metres from Government House.

Abhisit declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces Sunday in a bid to quell the protests that forced the cancellation of a major ASEAN summit meeting the previous day.

The prime minister, who had narrowly escaped being beaten up himself by protesters, warned that a line had been crossed and a very firm response was required.

The government was widely criticised Sunday for failing to crack down on the relatively small number of protesters who invaded the 16-nation summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the seaside resort of Pattaya, southeast of Bangkok, over the weekend.

Thailand has been rocked by political strife since the overthrow of Thaksin in September 2006 in a bloodless military coup. Two subsequent pro-Thaksin governments were rejected by the military and bureaucracy amid widespread demonstrations, leading to the formation of Abhisit’s Democrat Party-led coalition government four months ago.

Thaksin is popular especially with the rural poor because of his populist economic policies, but is loathed and distrusted by much of the military, bureaucracy and middle class, who accuse him of corruption and disloyalty to the monarchy.

Thaksin, who has spent recent weeks whipping up support for “a revolution against an illegal government”, has lived abroad after being sentenced to two years in jail for abusing his powers.

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