- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

BANGKOK | Anti-government demonstrators swarmed Bangkok’s international airport late Tuesday, halting departing flights, and 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.

The manager, Serirat Prasutanon, said incoming flights were operating and that the provincial governor asked the army to help police.

The siege of the airport appeared aimed at Mr. Somchai, who is scheduled to return late Wednesday from an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru. Protest group spokesman Suriyasai Katasila said the airport will be shut down “until Somchai quits.”

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, according to footage on Thai PBS television. Alliance supporters then surrounded a motorcycle taxi driver and held a knife to his throat. After the driver fled, the protesters battered several motorbikes with steel rods and set fire to one.

Tuesday’s 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 of the two sides, a government supporter was beaten to death; 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.

Political tensions 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 Mr. Thaksin’s political machine failed, and his allies won in the 2007 vote.

The protesters accuse the current prime minister of acting as a proxy for Mr. Thaksin, his brother-in-law.

Protesters seeking Mr. 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.

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