The founder of Thailand's "yellow shirt" protest movement that shut down Bangkok airports last year was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt today, just days after troops cracked down on rioting protesters from the rival, anti-government "red shirt" group.
The government quickly moved to tighten security around Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who said a state of emergency that was imposed Sunday in Bangkok would remain in place. Vehicles carrying Abhisit were attacked twice by red-shirted protesters in the run-up to this week's riots.
Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and supporter of the current government who founded the People's Alliance for Democracy protest movement to oppose previous governments, was in stable condition after surgery that removed a bullet from his skull, said Vajira Hospital director Chaiwan Charoenchoktawee.
Sondhi's alliance immediately labeled the attack politically motivated, a claim that police said was under investigation. The red-shirt protesters have expressed anger that several of their leaders were arrested over the past week, while Sondhi and his allies were never prosecuted over last year's airport seizures.
The pre-dawn attack came just hours before the government met for a special Cabinet meeting that had been called to discuss the recent violence and measures to boost Thailand's beleaguered economy, a matter that has been upstaged by political turmoil.
Abhisit told reporters the Cabinet had decided "not to revoke the emergency decree," which was imposed Sunday to control rioting in the capital. "We have to make sure peace and order truly returns."
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told reporters after the drive-by shooting that the security around Abhisit would be increased and "we may not be able to disclose his plans and schedule as usual."
Sondhi, who owns the pro-government TV channel ASTV, was being driven to work before dawn Friday when at least two men in a pickup truck ambushed his car and opened fire with an M-16 and an AK-47, first aiming to shoot out the tires and then spraying the vehicle with bullets, said Bangkok police spokesman Suporn Pansua.
"Considering the nature of the attack and the weapons used, we believe it was carried out by people with expertise," Suporn said, adding that 84 bullet shells were found on the road near the attack in western Bangkok. "We believe the attack was meant to take lives."
Television footage showed the car's windshield was riddled with bullets and windows on one side were shattered. The driver of the car was seriously wounded and an aide traveling in the car also was wounded, he said.
Sondhi's People's Alliance for Democracy staged protests most of last year to demand that allies of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra resign from government. His supporters come mainly from the middle class and educated elite of Thai society, and include royalists, academics and retired military.
Court rulings later ousted Thaksin-allied governments and dissolved their parties, paving the way for Abhisit to take control in Parliament in December.
The latest round of protests in Thailand have involved the red-shirted supporters of Thaksin, who say Abhisit has no popular mandate to rule. The red-shirts, who largely come from rural areas, rioted in Bangkok earlier this week but called off the protests Tuesday after facing a major military crackdown.
The rioting revealed deep-seated anger among the poor in Thailand who say they feel discriminated against in Thai society.
They argue that security forces did nothing to crack down on the yellow-shirted royalist protesters who occupied Government House for three months last year and then seized Bangkok's two airports for a week, stranding some 300,000 travelers.
A spokesman for the yellow-shirted alliance, Panthep Poapongpan, called the attack politically motivated but stopped short of saying who he believed was behind the attack.
"It is quite clear that it was political," he said, adding that the attack "did not come as a surprise." Sondhi regularly travels with bodyguards.
None of the leaders of the red-shirt movement could be immediately contacted. Aside from three in police custody, others were on the run and had their phones switched off.
Police said an investigation was under way to determine the motive and they were looking into Sondhi's political enemies as well as business associates who could be linked to the attack.
The Thai capital remained under emergency rule on Friday for a sixth day. A state of emergency was imposed Sunday a day after red-shirted protesters stormed a summit of Asian leaders outside Bangkok, prompting its cancellation and the evacuation of leaders by helicopter.