Thai protesters dig in and vow to 'fight to the death'

PM sacks police chief as tourist industry faces ruin
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The Thai police chief was sacked as hundreds more protesters descended on Bangkok's main airport to reinforce a four-day anti-government blockade, threatening to "fight to the death" if police tried to remove them.

The Thai Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, sacked his national police chief, General Patcharawat Wongsuwan, yesterday afternoon after his failure to lift the siege by force on Thursday. "The removal was the result of his performance during this crisis," said a government spokesman. By early evening, 80 riot police with truncheons and shields gathered in a car park near the main terminal building. But their numbers were dwarfed by the 6,000 or so protesters inside, some armed with baseball bats, iron bars and other makeshift weapons.

"We will not leave," said Suriyasai Katasila the leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). "We will use human shields against the police if they try to disperse us."

Despite the rising tensions, during the day, the main terminal building had an air of festivity about it. Many parents brought their children, stalls have been set up selling bright yellow alliance banners, flags and rattles, and all the food is free, much of it donated by wealthy supporters among Bangkok's business community. One stall was even giving fresh clothes to those who have been there for the duration.

"People give to us because they believe in our cause," said Pluem Rodkaew, 33, who was handing out toiletries. "We have enough food and water to stay here for months."

By nightfall, the atmosphere had changed. Groups of young men, wearing masks and carrying makeshift weapons, could be seen on patrol. The alliance denies these "security guards" have guns but firearms and grenades have been used in other confrontations.

The police, some with M16 assault rifles, blocked a main road and demanded that protesters leave the Don Mueang International Airport immediately. Mr Somchai insisted in a television address that the police would not be violent in removing the protesters and invited human rights and media organisations to observe and film the process. "Don't worry," he said. "Officials will use gentle measures to deal with them."

But the authorities cannot let the protest drag on. As long as the standoff continues, not only are thousands of tourists stranded, airfreight has ground to a halt and serious damage is being done to Thailand's economy. Officials and economists project the tourism industry's losses over the rest of the year will rise to 150 billion baht (£1.6bn), equal to 1.5 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, with two million or more travellers likely cancelling plans to visit Thailand in what should be peak season.

A government spokesman said overall the economy could lose at least 100 billion baht (£1.8bn) if the sieges drag on for a month, and GDP growth for the year could be cut to 4 per cent from an estimate of 4.5 per cent, already a seven-year low.

Yesterday, Thai Airways and Malaysia's Air Asia said it would try to operate some flights from U-tapao airfield, near the resort town of Pattaya, about 120 miles southeast of Bangkok.

The flights will be mainly used to ferry stranded tourists to Kuala Lumpa and Singapore where it is hoped they can pick up connecting flights.

Suvarnabhumi airport, which serves about 100 airlines with flights to 184 cities and processing 100,000 passengers a day, has also been hit by the protests. Many stranded Britons have been warned that even if the airport is open by Monday, it may be next Friday before they can get flights home. Most will have to pay for additional nights of hotel. Boots Travel Insurance said they would not be compensating passengers because the airport closure is classed as civil disobedience.