Thai protesters hit police and tighten grip on airport

Anti-government protesters tightened their grip on Bangkok's international airport today, attacking police checkpoints aimed at stopping more people from joining the blockade.

The protests, aimed at forcing out Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, have paralysed flights, stranded thousands of passengers and sparked rumours of a military coup, even though the army chief has said he will not seize control.

The government said tourism was suffering and the number of visitors to Thailand could fall by half next year.

In the latest clash, about 150 riot police fled their checkpoint near Suvarnabhumi airport after they were assaulted by protesters hurling iron rods and firecrackers from speeding cars.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement, which invaded the airport four days ago, then stationed guards on the expressway exit to prevent the police returning.

Earlier, about 2,000 PAD members forced riot police to abandon another checkpoint near the airport. There was no violence, but one police officer was detained by PAD "security guards", the Nation newspaper reported on its website.

The PAD's occupation of Suvarnabhumi, and a second older airport in Bangkok, is a dramatic escalation of their six-month street campaign against Somchai.

The airport closures have crippled the tourism industry during the peak end-of-year season. Somchai, who has refused to quit, imposed emergency rule at the airports two days ago but police have made no moves to evict the thousands of protesters.

Somchai, who is running the government from its political stronghold in the northern city of Chiang Mai, demoted his national police chief on Friday. While no official reason was given, Thai newspapers said he had been sacked for refusing to send riot police in to end the protest.

The PAD, a coalition of royalist businessmen, activists and academics who accuse Somchai of being a puppet of his brother-in-law, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, seized the airports in a "final battle" to unseat the government.

At Suvarnabhumi, PAD youths armed with iron stakes and wearing police riot helmets manned barricades, scanning with binoculars for signs of police or pro-government gangs.

"If they come, we'll not open the door. If they shoot us, we'll shoot them back. We'll die if that makes the country better," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongul told supporters, the most explicit admission yet by the movement that they are armed.

His co-leader, retired general Chamlong Srimuang, said the PAD had not held talks with authorities, but was open to meet "with people directly involved in the situation such as Somchai".

In a televised address on Friday night, Somchai said the PAD was doing massive damage to the tourism- and export-driven economy, but he would avoid violence to end the protests.

"Don't worry. Officials will use gentle measures to deal with them," he said, inviting rights groups and journalists to monitor the imposition of emergency rule at the two airports.

The airport sit-ins have forced hundreds of flights to be cancelled and grounded millions of dollars of air cargo.

Deputy Prime Minister Olarn Chaipravat said the damage to Thailand's tourist image may cut arrivals by half in 2009 from an expected 13.5 million this year, and threaten one million jobs.

The government will spend $30 million over the next month to help stranded tourists, he told reporters, including giving them free hotel rooms and a daily stipend of $56.

"It has been very frustrating," said Ian Fraser, an Australian who was due to return home on Wednesday after a month of lectures in Thailand.

The government is shuttling tourists to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 150 km (90 miles) east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines, but travellers have complained of massive delays and confusion.

Pressure is building on the army to oust the prime minister, as they did Thaksin in 2006, after Somchai rejected military calls to quit this week.

But army chief Anupong Paochinda has said he would not take over, arguing the military cannot heal fundamental political rifts between the Bangkok elite and middle classes, who despise Thaksin, and the poor rural and urban majority who love him.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Extras
indybest
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Business Development Director - Interior Design

£80000 - £100000 per annum + competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment...

Sales Director, Media Sponsorship

£60000 - £65000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A globally successful media and ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits