- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

BANGKOK (AP) - Thousands of troops fired warning shots and tear gas to turn back rampaging anti-government protesters Monday night, forcing retreating demonstrators into one neighborhood where a clash with residents left two people dead.

The evening gunbattle came after a full day of clashes between the protesters _ who are pressing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign _ and soldiers across the city. Troops fired warning shots and tear gas at the demonstrators and finally forced most to retreat to their base outside the prime minister’s offices.

There, said leaders of the protest movement, made up largely of supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, they would make their “final stand.”

Two people died in clashes between protesters and city residents enraged at their violent tactics. More than 100 people were hurt in the more than 12 hours of running street battles _ a major escalation of the country’s ongoing turmoil.

The violence threatens to slash tourism revenue and could lead to the loss of 200,000 jobs in the industry that directly employs about 2 million people, said Kongkrit Hiranyakit, chairman of the Tourism Council of Thailand.

It is also likely to give pause to foreign businesses considering building factories or making other investments _ especially since it comes just months after a group of rival protesters occupied the capital’s airports for a week, stranding thousands of tourists and businessmen and sending the economy into a tailspin.

The unrest caused malls and shops to shutter, and official celebrations for the Thai new year were canceled. More than a dozen countries, including the United States, issued travel warnings urging citizens to avoid trips to Thailand and for those already in Bangkok to stay in their hotels and away from the protests.

Protesters commandeered public buses to block several key intersections and sent two unmanned buses, one of them burning, hurtling toward lines of soldiers. One swerved and then careered off trees on the side of the road before coming to a halt, with no one injured.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said in a nationally televised address there was concern about what the demonstrators would do next.

“We worry that the protesters tonight will cause damage, like arson and throwing explosives,” he said.

As evening fell, some of the 6,000 troops deployed in Bangkok began moving toward Government House, where the protesters have held out since March 26. An estimated 5,000 demonstrators were gathered in the area.

Fighting broke out in several neighborhoods between demonstrators and angry residents, said government minister Sathit Wongnongtoey.

The two killed were males aged 19 and 53, said Dr. Chatri Charoenchivakul, adding 133 people were hurt Monday.

The 53-year-old resident was in a crowd of people hurling abuse at protesters who then shot at them, said Sathit. His account could not be independently confirmed. Clashes erupted earlier between protesters and residents in at least three other areas.

In a Muslim-dominated neighborhood, hundreds of protesters threw objects at residents, burnt tires, barged into a mosque and tried to set food stalls on fire. Residents fought them with sticks.

Demonstrators were stationed at a half-dozen points in Bangkok, defying government-imposed state-of-emergency measures that ban gatherings of more than five people.

In one of several confrontations, a line of troops in full battle gear fired volleys of M-16 fire, most of it aimed above the heads of protesters, and turned water cannons on the crowd near Victory Monument, a major traffic circle. An army spokesman said troops fired blank bullets at the crowds and live shots overhead.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Thaksin accused the military of lying about firing blanks at the crowd, saying soldiers used live ammunition, killed protesters and dragged away their bodies. “They shot people. Many died. Many people were injured,” he said.

Hundreds of soldiers and police assembled at the Royal Plaza, about a mile (less than 2 kilometers) from Government House, confronting about 100 female protesters who knelt down and screamed “Please stop, brothers.” Some hugged the soldiers.

“I don’t mind dying right here if it means we become a real democracy. You can kill me right here. I am not here to cause trouble. I just want my rights,” said Tanyawalai Wongsuriyaneth, 46, a female protester.

The protesters believe Abhisit came to power unfairly and want new elections. They accuse the country’s elite _ the military, judiciary and other unelected officials _ of undermining democracy by interfering in politics.

Political tensions have simmered since Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power. He remains popular in the impoverished countryside for his populist policies.

His opponents _ many in urban areas _ took to the streets last year to help bring down two governments led by his allies, seizing Bangkok’s two airports in November for about a week.

France, Britain, Australia, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines were among countries that issued travel advisories Monday, urging citizens to avoid trips to Thailand and for those already in Bangkok to stay in their hotels and away from protests.

The U.S. Embassy issued a warden message urging Americans “to avoid the areas of demonstrations and to exercise caution anywhere in Bangkok.”

Monday marked the beginning of the Thai New Year, normally the country’s most joyous holiday. The Bangkok municipal government canceled all its festivities, but despite the rioting many Thais and foreign tourists began engaging in the ritualistic water throwing and general partying.

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