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Clashes continue in Bangkok; five Thai protest leaders surrender after army assault

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says troops have been given permission to shoot at suspected arsonists. The military uses armored personnel carriers and water cannons as it penetrates the encampment of anti-government demonstrators in downtown Bangkok. Five deaths are reported.

May 19, 2010|By My-Thuan Tran and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Bangkok, Thailand, and New Delhi —
Sporadic clashes between Thailand army troops and anti-government protesters kept tension high in Bangkok through the night, even as Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged that calm would be restored in the burning capital city.

Abhisit, in a televised address Wednesday night, warned that troops were given permission to shoot at suspected arsonists. A nighttime curfew was declared by the government and a partial media blackout ordered for local television stations, which would be expected to broadcast government bulletins.

The army had said Wednesday that its deadly dawn offensive against anti-government demonstrators occupying a glitzy Bangkok shopping district was over and the situation was under control, as five protest leaders described by the military as "terrorist leaders" surrendered.

The army assault on the heavily barricaded protest encampment killed at least five people, according to news reports, including an Italian photographer, as armored personnel carriers broke through barricades of tires and bamboo staves amid clouds of tear gas and the whoosh of water cannons.

An open question, however, was whether rank-and-file protesters, who call themselves "Red Shirts," would end their struggle. Protest leaders have called on their followers not to give up their struggle for social change.

As the leaders were being taken away, grenades exploded nearby, injuring two soldiers and a journalist. Angry protesters tried to set fire to a shopping mall as word of the surrender spread, and unconfirmed reports said city halls in the provincial capitals of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai came under attack by rioters angered by the Bangkok attack.

"The general situation is under control," army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said in a televised address. "Security forces have ended their offensive."

The estimated 3,000 to 5,000 protesters, many drawn from rural, poor and working-class groups, have demanded Vejjajiva's immediate resignation, the dissolution of parliament and new elections to replace a government that they believe is illegitimate.

"Why would I go home?" said Sakorn Rangkalin, 54, a homemaker from Kalasin province, shortly before the assault started. "The Cabinet is still not dissolved."

Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra warned Bangkok residents Wednesday on a Thai TV station to stay in their homes in case the unrest spread to other areas.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told the BBC: "There will be a curfew in Bangkok tonight from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. . . . The operation to secure parameter of the protest area has been successful."

In preparation for Wednesday's military push, the government had announced a weeklong holiday in Bangkok lasting through Friday and cut off power, water, food deliveries and cellphone coverage to the protest area, although the cordon wasn't airtight. Street fighting over the last week has killed at least 39 people, mostly civilians, and wounded hundreds.

Television footage showed soldiers crouched in the shadow of armored vehicles beneath overpasses as plumes of black smoke from ignited tires rose nearby and ambulances raced into the area.

Wattanayagorn said on national television that the army operation was designed "to make sure that security officers can provide security and safety to the public at large."

While the army and police have largely secured the area by most indications, security experts said they will want to complete as much of their mopping-up activities as possible before darkness, when they would be more vulnerable to snipers and ambush.

"The longer it lasts, the more resistance they'll face," said David Tuck, Bangkok-based research director with Spectrum OSO Asia, a risk analysis firm. "If it gets dark, things could get nasty."

Starting the assault in the morning, rather than attempting to surprise protesters while sleeping, allows the army to better see what's going on, analysts said, amid hope there would be less confusion and fewer panicked protesters caught in crossfire. Red Shirt supporters expressed concern Wednesday about the risk of such casualties.

"This is a very violent reaction on people protesting in a nonviolent approach," said Suda Rangkupan, a linguistics professor at Chulakorn University who has joined the protests and given supportive speeches. "It's very cruel, very terrible."

But she and others vowed to fight on. "Even though we lose to the guns, the minds and hearts for democracy keep going on," Rangkupan said.

Peter Warr, executive director of the Australian National University's National Thai Studies Center, said authorities ultimately decided they had had enough.

"This is very costly and really disrupts the city, and there's a limit to how long the government can allow it," he said. "The problem with negotiating is that you don't know who you're negotiating with. There's no Red Shirt leadership structure."

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