Protests wreck Asian summit in Thailand

Leaders of nine countries evacuated by helicopter as anti-government crowds demanding PM's resignation storm conference centre

Anti-government protesters stormed a building where leaders of Asian nations were meeting yesterday, prompting Thailand to cancel the summit, declare a state of emergency, and airlift the somewhat shaken heads of government to safety.

The red-shirted protesters, who are calling for the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, later declared a "victory", and walked away from the convention centre.

"We have won. We have stopped them from holding a summit," Jakrapob Penkair, one of the protest leaders, said in the capital, Bangkok. "But we have not achieved our goal yet. We will continue to protest in Bangkok until Abhisit resigns."

More than 1,000 protesters had smashed through the convention centre's glass doors and run through the building, overturning tables, blowing horns, waving Thai flags, and screaming "Abhisit get out!". At the time, nine leaders from South-east Asian nations were in a nearby hotel on the convention grounds. They were evacuated by helicopter from Pattaya to a nearby military airport and immediately left the country.

The protesters – many of them supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power – met little resistance from a thin line of soldiers in riot gear who were standing in front of the summit venue. Abhisit's state of emergency in the area surrounding the summit gave the military the right to restore order, allowed authorities to suspend civil liberties, ban public gatherings and gag the media. It was later lifted, once all the leaders had been evacuated.

The chaos is a huge embarrassment for Mr Abhisit (pictured, right), who has been trying to project an image of calm since taking power in a parliamentary vote four months ago after a court dissolved the previous government for election fraud. It also raises tension in Thailand, where anti-government crowds as big as 100,000 marched in Bangkok last week, and increased the threat of violence between the military and the protesters. "The situation has gotten completely out of hand. Violence and bloodshed is very much possible," said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian and former rector of Bangkok's Thammasat University. "The country is very split and it might have reached the point of no return."

The violence also scuttles a chance for the 16 regional leaders, including those from China, Japan and South Korea, to confer on ways to combat the global slump that has battered Asia's export-oriented economies. North Korea's recent rocket launch also was to be discussed at the gathering, which today was to include Australia, New Zealand and India for the fully fledged East Asia summit. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said he hoped the summit could be rescheduled within the next few months, and warned protesters that "very tough standards will be applied to them very soon".

The summit had started on Friday with a dinner among leaders from the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), but fell apart yesterday morning as protesters blocked access to some of the delegates' hotels. Organisers had to delay – and then cancel – morning meetings between Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and Asean leaders, as well as meetings with the president of South Korea, and later with Japan's prime minister.

A meeting of the foreign ministers from Japan, China and South Korea also was cancelled. The aeroplane carrying Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was to join the summit today, was diverted and he flew back to Australia. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, scheduled to meet Asean leaders today, issued a statement saying he "deeply regretted" that the summit was called off, and that he would not be attending.

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