Street battles intensify as Thai army advances on protest camp

Ten people killed after soldiers use live rounds in effort to break up anti-government barricades. Andrew Buncombe reports

Soldiers opened fire on rioting protesters in the centre of Bangkok yesterday as they moved in to surround an illegal encampment in an attempt to forcibly end a long political standoff.

The clashes saw at least 10 people killed and more than 120 injured, with the business district of Thailand's capital again transformed into a battle zone. Troops fired live rounds, tear gas and rubber bullets at Red Shirt protesters who in turn threw stones and home-made rockets, and set fire to vehicles.

The violence broke out after a rogue general who was acting as a military adviser to the demonstrators was shot in the head and critically wounded on Thursday while being interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times.

The suspended officer, Khattiya Sawasdiphol, or Seh Daeng, has undergone brain surgery and was said last night to be in a critical condition. His colleagues claimed he was felled by an army sniper but there has so far been no independent confirmation of this. His shooting triggered an immediate, angry response from demonstrators who clashed with troops close to the barricaded encampment in which they have been holed up for the past six weeks. Fires blazed in the streets as troops fired repeated warning shots into the crowd.

Three journalists were among those wounded in the violence. Canadian reporter Nelson Rand was hit by three bullets and was being operated on last night, although he was said to be in a stable condition.

It seems likely that this is just the latest twist in the long-running battle between the state and protesters who want to oust Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and force fresh elections. So far the authorities have not made a decisive move to clear the protesters from their heavily defended compound, which is protected with tyres, huge bundles of razor wire and wooden staves soaked in kerosene. The troops appear wary of adding to the 34 fatalities and more than 1,400 people wounded since the protests began in April. "We will allow protesters to leave the area today," army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told reporters, explaining that the authorities were attempting to seal off the encampment and cut off supplies.

Reuters reported that one of its staff members saw a Thai policeman firing bullets at soldiers while giving cover to a wounded protester. While the police denied the claim, it reinforced the belief that some members of the security forces may be sympathetic to the protesters, who number around 20,000.

Many of the protesters are supporters of former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the army in 2006. Though the twice-elected premier had considerable support among the country's rural poor who voted for him as a result of his populist policies, the former telecommunications tycoon is hated by many within the urban Thai population.

A coalition of business leaders, retired military officers and – so it is alleged – elements within the Thai monarchy opposed him and two subsequently elected prime ministers allied to him. Mr Thaksin is now in exile in Dubai but many of the Red Shirts would love to see him return.

Amid concerns that the authorities were going to try and storm their compound under cover of darkness, the protesters had formed at least two of their own checkpoints overnight outside their encampment. Troops used live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas in a bid to force them out and the protesters responded by setting fire to police vehicles, a motorbike and piles of tyres. Sporadic gunfire and explosions have reportedly been heard throughout the city of 14 million people throughout the day.

The latest violence followed tough security measures imposed on Thursday evening to reclaim Bangkok's commercial district after the collapse of a reconciliation plan proposed last week by Mr Abhisit.

The British-educated Prime Minister, who came to power in 2008, is under enormous pressure to end the protests, which began with festive rallies on 12 March and descended into Thailand's deadliest political violence in almost two decades. "Abhisit must take political responsibility. Otherwise, there will be more chaos," said one leader, Nattawut Saikua.

The protests have seen millions of dollars wiped from Thai shares and damaged the country's reputation as a safe haven for tourists. Foreign currency from such tourists is a vital source of income for Thais. Most businesses and embassies in the area of the protests have evacuated staff and were closed for the day. Apartment complexes were mostly empty after the government warned it would shut down power and water supplies, while landlords urged tenants to leave.

Prospects for peace

*Who are the protesters?

Many are from Thailand's rural north and back the populist policies of the former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006. The protest is against a powerful elite that has run the country for generations. The protesters say they want more democracy and claim Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's rule is illegitimate without an election and is a puppet of the military.

*Can a deal be done?

The premier withdrew his offer of an early election in November, more than a year early, and said he will make no further concessions after the protesters refused to move from their camp. The Red Shirts had agreed to the reconciliation plan but then insisted the PM and his deputy be prosecuted for ordering troops to break up a rally that left 25 dead. The result: deadlock. The chances of a deal now seem gloomy at best.

*What happens now?

The military moves suggest that the army-backed government will try to lay siege to the protesters but this could take days or even months. The military has repeatedly said it is unwilling to crack down on the heavily-fortified protest site; any operation is likely to result in heavy casualties.

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