Ultimatum passes as battles rage on in Bangkok

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The Independent Online

A Thai government ultimatum today failed to dislodge thousands of Red Shirts from a protest camp in central Bangkok as their leaders made a fresh offer to negotiate on the fifth day of raging street battles that have killed 37 people.





A small plane dropped leaflets urging the estimated 5,000 protesters to abandon their fortified camp by 3pm or face criminal charges and up to two years in prison. The demand had little apparent effect, and unrest still flared in various parts of the downtown area, with troops firing live ammunition at protesters who were lighting tires to hide their positions. The thick smoke darkened the sky.



Some protesters commandeered a fuel tanker from a petrol station and pushed it to the middle of the key Rama IV road that has become a battleground. The protesters tried to set it ablaze with a burning tire and fireworks, but were deterred by troops.



Today, the so-called military strategist of the Red Shirts, who was shot in the head in an apparent sniper attack last week, succumbed to his injuries. The shooting last Thursday of Major Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol had sparked the latest unrest, two months into the standoff in the capital, and his death raised fears violence could get worse.



The Red Shirts, many of whom hail from the impoverished north and northeast, are trying to unseat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and force immediate elections. They say the coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it symbolizes a national elite indifferent to their plight.



The political conflict is Thailand's deadliest and most prolonged in decades, and each passing day of violence deeply divides in this nation of 65 million — a key US ally and Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. Thailand has long been considered a democratic oasis in Southeast Asia, and the unrest has shaken faith in its ability to restore and maintain stability.



A Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said the only hope now to end the violence was intervention by Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Another protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, said the Red Shirts are ready to negotiate and to submit themselves to the courts.



Despite the conciliatory words, the Red Shirts also continued to insist they will not stop the protests until Abhisit orders a cease-fire. Red Shirt supporters were also seen gathering in other parts of the city, and in at least one place an activist used a loudspeaker to address a crowd of about 300.



The 82-year-old monarch, hospitalized since September, has remained publicly silent on the crisis unlike decades past when he stepped in to stop bloodshed.



Authorities say they are not shooting to kill but only want to choke off the Red Shirts, who have occupied a 1-square-mile protest zone in one of Bangkok's ritziest areas for weeks.



"Immediately vacate the area that is considered dangerous," the government said in a televised announcement and mobile phone text messages. "Terrorists are trying to cause deaths in the area." Fliers were also dropped by a small plane.



The announcement said buses will be provided to escort protesters out of their encampment and take them home. But the deadline passed without incident, and most protesters interviewed said they were not aware of the announcement as the leaflets fell far from the protest zone. Protesters had no access to television and cell phone signals had earlier been jammed by the government, preventing the messages from being delivered.



Authorities have not spelled out what would happen after the deadline but there are concerns it could precede a crackdown. Still, previous such deadlines have been ignored without consequences.



Soldiers have encircled the core protest site and cut off utilities to the area. Women and children have moved to a Buddhist temple compound within the zone. Red Cross and other medical workers went into the temple today to provide aid.



The areas between the site and the military's perimetre have become a no-man's land where gunshots and blasts can regularly be heard. The government says Red Shirt activists were creating trouble as far as 1 mile from their main protest site.



A previous army attempt to disperse the protesters on April 10 — when they had congregated in a different area of Bangkok — left 25 people dead.



According to government figures, 66 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in March. The toll includes 37 killed, almost all of them civilians, and 266 wounded since Thursday.



"It's time to return peace to the country. We are ready to move toward peace and the negotiations," Nattawut said. "The more the situation goes on, the longer people's lives will be in danger."



Nattawut also dropped a previous demand for the U.N. to mediate in the talks, saying the government can appoint a neutral body for the task.



However, the government stuck to its stand that the army will not pull back until the protesters stop attacking them. "The protest has to stop. Clashes have to stop. Activities that threaten security of the general public have to stopped," government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.



"We have no policy to attack civilians. Our officers respond militarily when they are attacked," he said.



Rapid gunfire and explosions echoed before dawn Mondaytoday outside the luxury Dusit Thani hotel, located next to the protest zone. Guests were rushed to the basement for safety.



Reporters at the scene said the gunfire came both from government forces and protesters holed up inside the encampment who appear to have stockpiled a sizable arsenal of weapons.



Early today, several hundred army troops and heavily armed police were spotted in the Sukhumvit area, an upscale residential neighborhood popular with Bangkok expatriates.



Roads were blocked to prevent traffic from traveling toward the protest zone, and many residents — unnerved by the uncommon sight of troops in Sukhumvit — were making plans to evacuate.



"People are either battening down the hatches and not moving out of the area, or they're getting out of town," said Debbie Oakes of Wellington, New Zealand, a four-year resident of Bangkok.



She said she and her family were packing up to leave Bangkok and heading to the beach resort of Hua Hin, a three-hour drive away. By midafternoon, many stores in Sukhumvit had shut down.



Days of prolonged fighting and disruption to normal city life have taken their toll on Bangkok residents. Most shops, hotels and businesses near the protest area are shut and long lines formed at supermarkets outside the protest zone as people rushed to stock up on food. The city's two mass transit trains remained closed Monday.

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