Sunday, 30 November 2008

Protest blasts wound dozens in Thailand

Agence France-Presse

BANGKOK--(UPDATE) Explosions early Sunday at sites occupied by anti-government protesters injured at least 51 people, further raising tensions as police struggle to end a paralyzing blockade of Bangkok's airports.

The attacks came hours after royalist, anti-government demonstrators forced police to abandon a checkpoint at the main Suvarnabhumi airport on the fifth day of a siege that has left tens of thousands of travellers stranded.

Police have so far held off launching an assault on the protesters occupying two Bangkok airports amid fears of a repeat of political violence that left two people dead last month, and concerns that further bloodshed could spark a coup.

In the latest violence, unknown attackers lobbed a grenade near a stage set up for rallies at Government House, the prime minister's cabinet offices which supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) occupied in August.

A Bangkok emergency services spokesman said 49 people were wounded in that blast, three of them with serious injuries.

"Protesters have returned to their positions, they are not scared," PAD spokesman Suriyasai Katasila told local Channel Three television.

Hours later, a blast hit outside the small domestic airport Don Mueang, injuring two passers-by. Police had no details on the cause of the explosion.

Grenade attacks earlier this month at Government House killed two protesters and prompted the PAD to launch what it called its "final battle" against the government last Sunday.

Demonstrators took control of Suvarnabhumi on Tuesday and the smaller Don Mueang domestic airport on Wednesday.

Somchai is now governing from the northern city of Chiang Mai, as his spokesman says he is concerned about tensions with the military in a country that has seen 18 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

The PAD accuses Somchai's government of being a corrupt puppet for exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a putsch in 2006. Thaksin is the current premier's brother-in-law.

Supporters of the group -- a loose coalition with the backing of elements in the military, the palace and the urban middle classes -- say it will not leave the airports or Government House until Somchai's administration quits.

Protesters at Suvarnabhumi have dug in for the long haul. The PAD's militia have set up barricades of tires, wooden stakes and razor wire, while inside people are bedding down in tents and preparing medical and food stocks.

About 2,000 police were deployed Sunday to set up four more checkpoints on the road to Suvarnabhumi, airport security commander Major General Rarshane Reunkomol told AFP. Some carried M16 rifles and pistols.

"The government is still in the process of negotiations and I have asked my men not to use force whatever happens. The gunfire will not be heard from police," Rarshane told AFP.

A Thai pro-government group has also vowed to hold a rally in Bangkok later on Sunday, raising further fears of clashes.

Somchai on Friday dismissed the national police chief for failing to take on the protesters, whose actions have cost Thailand billions of dollars and badly hit its tourist industry.

Rumours of a coup swept the country after Somchai rejected calls from the army chief to call snap elections, but General Anupong Paojinda said military action would not solve the rifts in Thai society.

Frustrated tourists meanwhile struggled to escape Thailand through a Vietnam War-era naval base as airport authorities announced Suvarnabhumi would remain closed for at least two more days.

"We were originally told we were booked on a flight but they are re-selling people tickets," English tourist Mark Underwood, 23, told AFP at the one-runway U-Tapao naval base about 190 kilometres (118 miles) southeast of Bangkok.

"We have no money. I am annoyed and we want to get home."

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