- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) – Anti-government demonstrators swarmed Bangkok’s international airport late Tuesday, halting departing flights, as opponents and supporters of Thailand’s government fought in the streets of the city.

Political tensions simmering for two years have boiled over in recent months, but Tuesday’s violent confrontations in Bangkok — which saw protesters using slingshots, knives and gunfire on a busy street and tourists caught up in the airport chaos— marked a dramatic escalation.

Minutes after outbound flights at Suvarnabhumi International Airport were suspended, hundreds of demonstrators — some masked and armed with metal rods — broke through police lines and spilled into the passenger terminal.

The airport manager said authorities tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the protesters, who accuse Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat of being a puppet of his disgraced predecessor and have occupied his offices since August, demanding his resignation.

“For the safety for passengers, we have to stop flights out of the airport temporarily until the situation returns to normal,” the manager, Serirat Prasutanon, said in a statement. He said incoming flights were operating and that the provincial governor asked the army to help police.

The siege of the airport appeared aimed at Somchai, who is scheduled to return late Wednesday from an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru.

Travelers seemed bewildered.

“This is the first time I have seen anything like this. I am glad that it did not turn out violent,” said Daniel Garmona, a tourist from North Carolina who was waiting for a flight back to the U.S.

Using trucks and cars, demonstrators blocked highway access to the airport, the transportation hub for millions of tourists who visit the country each year.

The airport siege followed a clash earlier in the evening between opponents and supporters of Thailand’s government.

Members of the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy were returning from a rally at the smaller Don Muang airport, when government supporters threw rocks at their truck.

Alliance members responded by firing slingshots and a half-dozen shots with two pistols from their truck, according to footage shown on Thai PBS television.

The footage showed the alliance supporters surrounding a motorcycle taxi driver and holding a knife to his throat. After the driver fled, the protesters battered several motorbikes with steel rods and set fire to another one.

The clash was the second time in recent months that the two sides have fought and marks the first major violence since Oct. 7, when street battles with police and anti-government forces left two people dead and hundreds wounded.

In a Sept. 2 clash between the two sides, a government supporter was beaten to death, while two alliance members were killed last week in grenade attacks.

Police Col. Piyapong Ponvanich said 11 people were wounded in Tuesday’s fighting, most of them government supporters, some with gunshot wounds.

The rivals are fairly easy to distinguish, since the protest alliance favors yellow shirts and their rivals red ones. Some of the government supporters seen fleeing were wearing red shirts.

Political tensions that have been simmering since 2006, when a similar protest campaign against then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — accused of corruption and abuse of power — led to a military coup that deposed him. Further efforts to cripple Thaksin’s political machine failed, and his allies won a December 2007 election.

Tensions heated up further with the current effort to force Somchai to step down. The protesters accuse him of acting as a proxy for Thaksin, his brother-in-law.

Protesters seeking Somchai’s resignation have occupied his Bangkok offices, known as Government House, since Aug. 26, forcing him to relocate to a makeshift office in the VIP area of the former international airport at Don Muang.

A strike called by state enterprise unions to disrupt air, road and rail service in support of the protest meanwhile fizzled — the second time unionists have failed to deliver on promises of a crippling work stoppage.

The alliance then resumed its street protests and finally stormed Government House in August, vowing not to leave until they have forced Thaksin’s allies from power. They accuse Somchai of acting as a proxy for Thaksin, who is his brother-in-law.

Thailand’s economy, already struggling amid the global downturn, has been hit hard by the political turmoil. The state planning agency said Monday it grew at its slowest pace in more than three years this past quarter.

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