Thai troops retreat from street battles with protesters, ask demonstrators to pull back also

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Thai troops retreat from battles with protesters

BANGKOK — Thailand’s army spokesman says that troops have retreated from street battles with anti-government protesters in Bangkok. Nearly 200 people have been injured.

Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd went on national television Saturday night to ask the protesters to retreat as well.

Sansern said a senior government official has been asked to coordinate with the protesters “to bring back peace.”

He said that protesters have been “using real bullets and grenades” during the fighting.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BANGKOK (AP) — Thai security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at anti-government demonstrators Saturday, setting off fierce street battles during a large-scale crackdown aimed at ending a month of disruptive protests in the capital. More than 150 people have been injured, including some with gunshot wounds.

The military vowed to clear one of the protesters’ main encampments by nightfall but did not. By early evening, a pitched battle was under way near the protesters’ camp. Thai media reported both side firing guns, and the use of small bombs. Details were difficult to confirms, but video showed chaotic scenes of fighting in streets enveloped in tear gas.

Thai TV stations reported earlier that a helicopter had dropped tear gas on demonstrators at another location, a report that could not immediately be confirmed.

Some 161 people have been injured, most sustaining cuts and bruises or irritation related to tear gas, the government’s Erawan emergency center said. There were reports that several people sustained gunshot wounds. The army said any live rounds were fired only into the air, but confirmed that two of its soldiers had been shot.

Most of Saturday’s confrontations, at several points across the city, involved pushing and shoving by the two sides, though some protesters wielded sticks and threw rocks. Tear gas was used frequently by the soldiers, who also fired rubber bullets at the protesters and M-16 assault rifles in the air. A reporter for Thai TV station TPBS showed a spent bullet and bullet hole in the side of a car.

The so-called Red Shirt protesters are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call new elections. They claim that he came to power illegitimately in December 2008 with the help of military pressure on Parliament.

Government forces have confronted the protesters before but pulled back rather than risk bloodshed.

On Friday, the army failed to prevent demonstrators from breaking into the compound of a satellite transmission station. The humiliating rout of troops and riot police raised questions about how much control Abhisit has over the police and army.

To effectively confront the protesters, Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee of Chulalongkorn University said the government needs the cooperation of the military, but it could be that the army is reluctant to use force against the protesters.

Thailand’s military has traditionally played a major role in politics, staging almost a score of coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said in a broadcast on all stations Saturday afternoon that the army “is employing soft measures and hard measures step by step.”

Earlier, he said that the military hope to clear out the protesters original rally site in the old section of Bangkok by dusk.

More troops were also sent to a second rally site in the heart of Bangkok’s tourist and shopping “to pressure the protesters,” he said. The city’s elevated mass transit system known as the Skytrain, which runs past that site, stopped operations and closed all its stations as possible confrontation loomed.

On the same TV broadcast, government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said, “If the security officers have to use force, they will do it with caution.

The violence has not yet approached the level of last April, when Red Shirts began rampaging on city streets and torching public buses.

On Saturday, a helicopter circled over one protest site, where protesters were trying to disable public surveillance cameras by covering them with bags or cutting their cables. At a rally site in the heart of Bangkok’s shopping district, protest leaders handed out damp towels and face masks to protect against tear gas, and called for more followers to gather.

The new deployment came after protesters were pushed back by water cannons and rubber bullets from the headquarters of the 1st Army Region. Although they have two main rally sites, the Red Shirts use trucks and motorcycles to send followers all over the city on short notice.

Arrest warrants have been issued for 27 Red Shirt leaders, but none is known to have been taken into custody.

On Friday, protesters broke into the Thaicom transmission station and briefly restarted a pro-Red Shirt television station that had been shut down by the government under a state of emergency. After scattered hand to hand scuffles, the troops retreated in disarray, some taking positions inside the main Thaicom building.

Merchants say the boisterous demonstrations have cost them tens of millions of baht (millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near the site have been under virtual siege.

The escalating demonstrations are part of a long-running battle between the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006 military coup that removed him from power.

They see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of the elite and claim he took office illegitimately in December 2008 with the help of military pressure on Parliament.

Associated Press writers Denis D. Gray and Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.

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