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Blast in Thailand injures dozens

An opposition rally is targeted. Meanwhile, with the main airport still closed, tourists are trying to figure out how to get home.

November 30, 2008|Charles McDermid | McDermid is a special correspondent.

BANGKOK, THAILAND — An explosion in the Thai prime minister's office compound injured about 45 people, an emergency official said early today.

The blast at the Government House, which has been occupied by thousands of anti-government protesters since August, occurred about midnight Saturday during a rally by supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy, officials said.

At least four people suffered serious injuries when the explosion, apparently caused by a grenade, shook the rally area, according to emergency officials and news reports.

In an earlier incident Saturday, several hundred protesters at Suvarnabhumi Airport, many of them armed with iron rods and tossing firecrackers, attacked a checkpoint, causing about 150 riot police officers to flee. A perimeter set up by police had prompted speculation that authorities were preparing for a raid to end the siege, which began Tuesday.

Members of the alliance have vowed to remain at Suvarnabhumi, which is a major international airport, along with the domestic Don Muang airport and the Government House, the country's top administrative center, until Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat steps down.

About 100,000 foreign travelers remain stranded in Thailand and that number could skyrocket if anti-government protesters continue to control Bangkok's main airports, news outlets reported Saturday.

With the occupation of regional air hub Suvarnabhumi, the mass cancellation of flights has played havoc with Southeast Asia's air traffic, forcing airlines to reroute travelers and freight. Suvarnabhumi is the world's 18th-busiest airport and handles about 3% of all air cargo.

The government has begun flying marooned tourists out of Utapao, a small military airfield about 80 miles south of Bangkok. Many travelers are resorting to overland travel to Cambodia or Malaysia.

John Guislin, a 58-year-old software developer from Palo Alto, was stranded Tuesday after a vacation in Bhutan. Two days later, with protesters tightening their blockade, he and his wife rented a taxi for the more than 30-hour drive to Singapore.

"We had heard about the trouble in Bangkok but didn't know how bad it was until we saw the thousands of people at the airport," Guislin said. "It was just bad timing."

Thailand's vital tourism sector could lose more than $4 billion over the remainder of the year, officials estimate, and as many as 2 million tourists are expected to cancel plans to visit the "Land of Smiles." The national carrier, Thai Airways, is reportedly losing $14 million a day.

The government Thursday declared a state of emergency at the two airports and threatened to remove the protesters by force. But the next day, Somchai removed the chief of police for failing to move on the demonstrators. By late Friday, police were in position outside both airports, but no violence was reported.

The government has pledged to resolve the crisis peacefully, and the People's Alliance for Democracy has vowed to "fight to the death."

On Bangkok's Khao San Road, a legendary "backpackers' ghetto," concerns over lost luggage and reluctant insurers were rampant Saturday. Travel agencies, Internet cafes and barrooms were abuzz with complaints, mostly lamenting a lack of credible information and limited travel options.

"When I called my agent about my travelers insurance, the first thing he said was, 'Are you sitting down?' " said Jennifer Cooper, 37, of Melbourne, Australia.

Andy Barclay, a Hong Kong accountant, said his company wouldn't reimburse airfare because the cancellation was due to a "regional disruption." Other travelers said their insurers were calling the crisis a "terrorist attack" and refusing to pay.

Barclay arrived Wednesday and slept in Suvarnabhumi Airport. By Saturday, he had moved to Khao San Road and booked a 24-hour bus trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to catch a flight home. He was set to start a new job Monday.

"Travel agents are basically saying there is no space on trains. The other option was the bus, which is twice the price," Barclay said.

"Lots of people are just wandering around. They're starting to think, 'Hold on. I need to get out of here.' The number is just getting bigger as people finish their holiday and want to go home."

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