Police begin talks with Thai protesters

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The Independent Online

Thai police began talks with anti-government protesters blockading Bangkok's Don Muang airport today, a senior police officer said, and will move against them if negotiations fail to end the siege.

"We are asking them to allow the airport to resume operations," Lieutenant General Suchart Muenkaew, the chief police negotiator at the airport, told reporters.

"We will keep talking, but if it fails we will take other steps. The last step will be to disperse them."

People's Alliance of Democracy (PAD) protesters laying siege to Don Muang and the main Suvarnabhumi International Airport have been braced for a battle with security forces since Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared a state of emergency last night.

In a televised address from the government stronghold of Chiang Mai, 400 miles north of Bangkok, Somchai said the export- and tourism-driven economy could not tolerate further disruption.

"I need to do something to restore peace and order," he said.

A similar declaration in September aimed at dislodging protesters occupying Government House was ignored by the army.

The airport sit-ins have forced hundreds of flights to be cancelled, stranding thousands of foreign tourists in one of Asia's biggest air hubs and grounding millions of dollars of air cargo.

"We will not leave. We will use human shields against the police if they try to disperse us," PAD leader Suriyasai Katasila told Reuters.

PAD guards had set up roadblocks on the main expressway to the airport and were stopping all cars and checking passengers and trunk compartments.

The roadblocks were manned by youths in black jackets, faces partly covered by masks. Some wore body armour and wielded wooden stakes and golf clubs.

Thailand's three-year-old political crisis has deepened dramatically since the PAD began a "final battle" on Monday to unseat a government it accuses of being a pawn of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup. Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law.

Pressure has built on the army to step in since Somchai rejected military calls to quit, but pro-government forces threaten to take up arms if the elected administration is ousted, raising fears of major civil unrest.

Army chief Anupong has repeatedly said he would not take over, arguing the military is powerless to heal fundamental political rifts between the Bangkok elite and middle classes who despise Thaksin, and the poor rural and urban majority who love him.

But rumours of the army preparing to launch what would be Thailand's 19th coup or attempted coup in 76 years of on-off democracy continue to swirl around the capital.

The government offered to shuttle thousands of stranded tourists by bus to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 90 miles east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines.

Aviation Department chief Chaisak Angkasuwan said 20 regional airbases in Thailand were available as alternatives.