- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 11, 2010

BANGKOK (AP) — Anti-government protesters dug into their encampments around Bangkok and rejected talk of negotiations Sunday after a monthlong standoff escalated into clashes that killed 21 people in Thailand’s worst political violence in nearly two decades.

Bullet casings, pools of blood and shattered army vehicles littered the streets near a main tourist area where soldiers had tried to clear the protesters. At least 874 people were injured in what one newspaper called “The Battle for Bangkok.” Protesters are demanding that the prime minister dissolve Parliament, call early elections and leave the country.

Dozens of foreign governments issued warnings for citizens visiting Thailand, where tourism is a lifeblood industry.

Quiet returned to Bangkok on Sunday after hours of fierce fighting Saturday that erupted when troops tried to clear one of the protest sites and ended when they retreated. But protesters continued to occupy two main bases — one in the capital’s historic district and another along the main upscale shopping boulevard.

Protesters showed off a pile of weapons they had captured from the troops, including rifles and heavy-caliber machine-gun rounds. More than half a dozen military vehicles, armored personnel carriers, Humvees and a truck were crippled by the protesters, who ripped off the treads of the armored cars.

Some of the heaviest fighting occurred near the backpacker mecca Khao San Road, where protesters came in throngs Sunday to pose for pictures on top of seized army vehicles. Others strolled around in confiscated army riot gear.

Government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said the government’s objective was to avoid more violence and “to return the city to normal,” but indicated there was no clear solution.

On Sunday, the protesters broke into a satellite communications complex in a northern Bangkok suburb, forcing the operators to restore the Red Shirts’ vital People Channel television station, which the government twice has shut down.

Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the Red Shirt movement, which contends the current government is illegitimate because it does not reflect results of the last elections, said Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s hands were “bloodied” by the clashes.

“Red Shirts will never negotiate with murderers,” Mr. Jatuporn announced from a makeshift stage. “Although the road is rough and full of obstacles, it’s our duty to honor the dead by bringing democracy to this country.”

But another protest leader, Veera Musikapong, called on followers to refrain from further violence against government forces and cooperate with authorities who might come to investigate Saturday’s clashes.

“Please don’t tarnish the victory we are very close to winning now,” he said ahead of funeral rites for 14 dead demonstrators.

Each side blamed the other for the violence. Red Shirt leaders accused the military of opening fire into the crowds, while army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd accused protesters of firing live rounds and throwing grenades.

Mr. Panithan said the military only fired live ammunition into the air. He said authorities have found grenades, assault rifles and homemade weapons among the protesters.

Four soldiers and 17 civilians were killed, according to the government’s Erawan emergency center. At least 874 people were injured, according to the emergency center. The deaths included Japanese cameraman Hiro Muramoto, who worked for the Thomson Reuters news agency. In a statement, Reuters said he was shot in the chest and the circumstances of his death were under review.

Police spokesman Lt. Gen. Pongsapat Pongcharoen said an autopsy committee, which would include two Red Shirt members, was set up to examine corpses of those killed, including Mr. Muramoto.

It was the worst violence in Bangkok since four dozen people were killed in a 1992 antimilitary protest.

South Korea and China both urged their nationals Sunday to avoid visiting Bangkok. Australia warned its citizens of a “strong possibility of further violence” in Thailand, and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told tourists to stay away from the protests.

The United States has not updated a travel alert issued last week when a state of emergency was imposed that advised citizens to be careful in Bangkok. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Saturday that Washington “regrets the violence” and urged the protesters and government to show restraint.

Apichart Sankary, an executive with the Federation of Thai Tourism Associations, said that if street protests continue, the number of foreign visitors could drop to 14.5 million this year, against an earlier official projection of 15.5.

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

The 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 amid corruption allegations.

The protesters, called “Red Shirts” for their garb, see the Oxford-educated Mr. 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. Mr. Thaksin’s allies won elections in 2007, but court rulings removed two governments on charges of conflict of interest and vote-buying.

Saturday’s violence and the failure to dislodge the protesters are likely to make it harder to end the political deadlock and raised questions about how much control Mr. Abhisit has over the police and army.

The prime minister “failed miserably,” said Michael Nelson, a German scholar of Southeast Asian studies working in Bangkok.

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

Associated Press writers Grant Peck, Kinan Suchaovanich, Denis D. Gray and Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.

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