- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2008

BANGKOK | Thailand’s prime minister pledged Friday to use peaceful means to end the siege of the capital’s airports by anti-government protesters and demoted the national police chief, amid speculation he had disagreed with government policy.

But the likelihood of a violent confrontation still appeared high, as both protesters and police reinforced their presence at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, seized Tuesday by the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy.

“Today, we see blood with our eyes. We will fight,” said top protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul. “At this moment, there is no way we will negotiate.”

The group is demanding the resignation of the government, which it accuses of being a puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup and fled overseas to escape corruption charges. Current Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat is Mr. Thaksin’s brother-in-law.

The capital remains cut off from all civilian air traffic, stranding thousands of travelers and dealing a severe blow to the economy and tourism industry.

More protesters arrived at the airport in cars and buses despite roadblocks set up by police, boosting their number to several thousand. One of the main elevated roads into the airport is controlled by the alliance’s guards, who are manning their own checkpoint.

Police, many in full riot gear, also had a much more visible presence, guarding an airport hotel and airport management offices and assembling in a nearby administrative building.

U.S. State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid on Friday said Washington was “deeply concerned” about the situation and called on the protesters “to walk away from the airports peacefully.”

The Thai government on Thursday declared a state of emergency at Suvarnabhumi and at the smaller Don Muang domestic airport, also occupied by demonstrators.

In a brief televised speech Friday night, Mr. Somchai gave no clue as to when the deadlock might be resolved.

“Do not be concerned. The security forces will use peaceful means,” he said. “There will be negotiations and whatever else that is appropriate in the situation.”

Government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kua said National Police Chief Gen. Pacharawat Wongsuwan was demoted to an inactive post in the prime minister’s office. It was not clear if Gen. Pacharawat was removed because police failed to evict the protesters, or because he apparently made no attempt to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis, as the government had asked.

The airport takeover capped months of demonstrations, which took a dramatic turn when the protest alliance seized the prime minister’s office three months ago, virtually paralyzing the government.

Since then, Mr. Somchai had been working out of the former VIP lounge at Don Muang airport, but the airport siege forced him to move his government to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda has so far been publicly neutral in the political turmoil. He demanded protesters leave the airports and urged Mr. Somchai to call new elections, triggering speculation of a military coup.

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