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Hundreds injured in Red Shirt demonstrations in Bangkok
By GRANT PECK
The Associated Press
updated 2:29 p.m. ET April 10, 2010
BANGKOK - Thai soldiers and police fought pitched battles Saturday night with anti-government demonstrators in streets enveloped in tear gas, but troops later retreated and asked protesters to do the same. At least 15 people were killed, including a Japanese journalist, and more than 650 wounded, according to hospital officials.
Beleaguered Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva went on national television shortly before midnight to pay condolences to the families of victims and indirectly assert that he would not bow to protesters' demands to dissolve Parliament.
"The government and I are still responsible for easing the situation and trying to bring peace and order to the country," Abhisit said, vowing a transparent investigation into Thailand's worst political violence in nearly 20 years.
The army had vowed to clear the "Red Shirt" protesters out of one of their two bases in Bangkok by nightfall, but the push instead set off street fighting. There was a continuous sound of gunfire and explosions, mostly from Molotov cocktails. After more than two hours of fierce clashes, the soldiers pulled back.
Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd went on television to ask the protesters to retreat as well. He also accused them of firing live rounds and throwing grenades during the fighting. An APTN cameraman saw two Red Shirt security guards carrying assault rifles.
"The security forces have now retreated to a certain extent from the Red Shirts," Sansern said. He said a senior government official had been asked to coordinate with the protesters to restore peace.
Call for new governmentThe Red Shirt protesters are demanding that Abhisit dissolve Parliament and call new elections. Their 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.
The Red Shirts see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of an elite impervious to the plight of Thailand's poor and claim he took office illegitimately in December 2008 after the military pressured Parliament to vote for him.
The government's Erawan emergency center said tallies from four Bangkok hospitals showed the death toll early Sunday had risen to at least 15 — four soldiers and 11 civilians.
Among them was Japanese cameraman Hiro Muramoto who worked for Thomson Reuters news agency. Reuters said he was shot in the chest while covering the fighting.
"Journalism can be a terribly dangerous profession as those who try to tell the world the story thrust themselves in the centre of the action," said Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger. "The entire Reuters family will mourn this tragedy."
The injury toll for the day rose to 678, according to the Erawan emergency center. The army said any live rounds were fired only into the air, but confirmed that two of its soldiers had been shot. Government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said more than 60 troops had been injured.
The protesters marched the body of a man they said was killed in the fighting to one of their encampments. They carried the man — who had part of his head blown off — on a stretcher.
Protests spreadMost of Saturday's fighting took place around Democracy Monument, which is near one of the encampments of the Red Shirt protesters. But it spread to the Khao San Road area, a favorite of foreign backpackers.
Soldiers made repeated charges to clear the Red Shirts, while some tourists stood by watching. Two protesters and a Buddhist monk with them were badly beaten by soldiers and taken away by ambulance.
A Japanese tourist who was wearing a red shirt was also clubbed by soldiers until bystanders rescued him.
Red Shirt leaders at the second rally site in the capital's main shopping district said they were leading followers to reinforce their comrades at the site of the fighting.
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 and briefly restarting a pro-Red Shirt television station that had been shut down by the government under a state of emergency. 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 the army may be reluctant to use force against the protesters.
Role of militaryThailand'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.
On Saturday afternoon, army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the military planned to clear out the protesters from their original rally site in the old section of Bangkok by dusk. More troops were also sent to the second rally site in the heart of Bangkok's upscale shopping district. The city's elevated mass transit system known as the Skytrain, which runs past that site, stopped running and closed all its stations.
The 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.
Merchants say the demonstrations have cost them hundreds of millions of baht (tens of millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near the site have been under virtual siege.