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Protesters clash with troops in Bangkok; two dead

April 14, 2009

BANGKOK, April 13 Thousands of Thai anti-government protesters clashed with armed soldiers and Bangkok residents on Monday, leaving two dead and 113 injured in street battles that raged across the capital.

Troops unleashed volleys of gunfire and hurled tear gas at the red-clad protesters, who sent buses hurtling towards lines of soldiers and torched a government ministry with petrol bombs.

The protesters, loyal to fugitive premier Thaksin Shinawatra, were forced to retreat to their camp around the Government House, the office of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who has imposed a state of emergency in the capital.

By late evening Abhisit was declaring the protests were all but quelled.

“This mission has progressed and is nearly complete, and I ask all of the authorities to remain firm,” Abhisit said in a national address, flanked by top brass and cabinet ministers.

“Most of the unrest has been suppressed, except the rally around the Government House,” he said, after earlier warning that protesters should disperse or face the consequences.

As night fell, residents near the Government House erected roadblocks and armed themselves with guns and swords, AFP reporters said, setting the stage for a deadly confrontation with the “Red Shirts”.

Cabinet minister Satit Wonghnongtaey said that a 54-year-old resident had been shot and killed, while two others were injured. A private hospital spokesman said that a 19-year-old man had died from gunshot wounds and five others were injured.

Bangkok's police spokesman went on television to show bullet casings recovered from the clash and urged residents not to become vigilantes.

“Residents should not be concerned, and must not come out and fight by themselves. The police will take care of security,” he said.

Abhisit, still reeling after the protesters stormed the venue of a major Asian summit at the weekend and forced an embarrassing cancellation, denied Thaksin's claim that authorities were covering up protest deaths.

An army spokesman meanwhile said that while live rounds were fired overhead to “terrify” protesters, only blanks were used in close-range encounters.

A spokesman for Bangkok's main emergency service said that over the day of violence, 113 people were hurt in the battles between demonstrators, soldiers and residents. Abhisit said 23 troops were among the injured.

Thailand has been mired in turmoil since the military toppled Thaksin in a coup in 2006, but the unrest confronts British-born Abhisit with his biggest challenge since he took office in December.

The so-called 'Red Shirts' want him to quit and call fresh elections, saying he came to power through an undemocratic parliamentary vote following a court ruling that drove Thaksin's allies from office.

Troops began the crackdown just before dawn, firing hundreds of rounds into the air after demonstrators blocking a major intersection pelted them with rocks and petrol bombs, AFP reporters said.

Further clashes erupted in the same area throughout the day, with protesters rigging up buses that were directed at phalanxes of soldiers, who responded with long bursts of overhead shots.

As darkness gathered, they encircled the protesters inside an area of several blocks but as they retreated the mob threw several petrol bombs into a building in Thailand's education ministry complex, setting it ablaze.

Police said there were now up to 5,000 protesters in front of the Government House.

The chaos will hit Thailand's vital tourism industry hard, with the bulk of the trouble erupting just streets away from malls where visitors turned up on Monday only to see hastily-written 'closed' signs.

“You can't see where the situation is going. It's pretty scary and I have two little ones with me,” said 43-year-old tourist Sharon Pangilinan, from the Philippines. —AFP