- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

BANGKOK (AP) - A gunbattle in a residential area of the Thai capital has caused the first fatality in the political street fighting that has plunged Thailand in chaos.

Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey says the fighting is happening around a market between area residents and hundreds of red-shirted anti-government protesters.

He told a local television station that said two people had been wounded in the confrontation. The fighting took place near the protesters’ stronghold outside the prime minister’s offices.

Dr. Chatri Charoenchivakul of the official Erawan Emergency Coordination Center said the victim was shot in the chest and two other people were wounded by gun shots.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BANGKOK (AP) _ Thousands of troops fired warning shots and tear gas at anti-government protesters rampaging across the Thai capital on Monday, forcing demonstrators to retreat and regroup for what organizers said would be a “final stand.”

For 12 hours, red-shirted protesters and the soldiers locked in a series of running street battles across Bangkok that left at least 79 people injured in a major escalation of the country’s ongoing political turmoil.

Malls and shops were shuttered 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.

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.

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

An army spokesman said troops fired blank bullets into the crowds and live shots overhead. “It’s going to take time, and we are trying to cause as little loss as possible,” said Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd.

“This will be our final stand. I beg that you return here and face them together,” protest leader Jatuporn Phromphan shouted from a platform. “We will use peaceful means and stay right here to end their violence.”

The demonstrators are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying his four-month-old government came to power illegally.

Hundreds of soldiers and police assembled at the Royal Plaza, about a mile (less than 2 kilometers) from the 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 returning to join the rally at Government House.

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

Protesters commandeered public buses to block several key intersections, set tires and vehicles on fire and sent two unmanned buses, one of them burning, hurtling toward lines of soldiers. The bus swerved and then ricocheted off trees on the side of the road before coming to a halt, with no one injured. The other bus also crashed without injuring anyone.

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.

Armed forces chief Gen. Songkitti Jaggabatara said on nationwide television that soldiers would use “every means to end the chaos” but employ weapons only for self-defense and not “excessively.”

In contrast to a complete security breakdown over the weekend, where a 16-nation Asian summit was canceled after demonstrators stormed the venue, security forces began to take action.

“The shots fired into the crowd were blank bullets. The heads are made of paper, so it only causes sound. We use these when protesters head toward soldiers to push them back. Those fired into the air are real bullets,” said Sansern, the army spokesman.

The red-shirted demonstrators are supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and want new elections and Abhisit’s ouster. They accuse the country’s elite _ the military, judiciary and other unelected officials _ of undermining democracy by interfering in politics.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Thaksin accused the military of lying about firing blank bullets into 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.

“I would like to urge every party that comes together to gather peacefully. War never ended with war,” said Thaksin, who appeared to be toning down his rhetoric. A day earlier, he phone in to a rally of supporters and called for a “revolution.”

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.

Parliament then appointed Abhisit in December after a court ordered the removal of the previous pro-Thaksin government citing fraud in the 2007 elections. Thaksin supporters took to the streets in protest, and their numbers grew to 100,000 in Bangkok last week.

Abhisit appealed Monday to the demonstrators to return to their homes, saying the government was using “the softest measures possible” against them.

“All the work I am doing is not to create fear or put pressure or to harm any group of people. It’s a step by step process to restore order and stop violence,” he said on nationwide television.

Monday’s first and most serious clash began before dawn, as troops in full combat gear advanced to disperse the protesters, who were occupying a major junction, according to witnesses.

At the nearby Century Park Hotel, foreign tourists were seen rushing into taxis and heading for Bangkok’s international airport. But others seemed unruffled.

“We’re from South Africa. We don’t scare easy,” said Estelle Jones, a tourist from Johannesburg.

Dr. Chatri Charoenchivakul of the Erawan Emergency Coordination Center said at least 70 people were injured, most of them from tear gas, while two soldiers and two civilians suffered from gunshot wounds. Another nine people were injured in clashes elsewhere, he said.

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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