- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

BANGKOK (AP) - Thai soldiers sprayed automatic weapons fire into the air and threw tear gas to clear demonstrators blocking roads across the capital Monday in a major escalation of anti-government protests that have roiled this Southeast Asian nation.

At least 74 people were reported injured in the clashes, most of them in a pre-dawn confrontation in which the demonstrators hurled at least one gasoline bomb and, according to the military, fired at the troops.

The protesters were stationed at half a dozen points in Bangkok, including the prime minister’s office where thousands remained encamped, defying a state of emergency that bans gatherings of more than five people.

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

Protesters commandeered public buses to block several key intersections, set tires on fire and sent two unmanned buses, one of them set on fire, hurtling toward lines of soldiers.

In one of several tense confrontations and cat-and-mouse chases around the city, 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.

Protesters at an intersection near the monument set an empty bus on fire and, after weighing down the accelerator with a bag of water bottles, sent it surging toward advancing soldiers.

The bus swerved and then ricocheted off trees on the side of the road before coming to a halt, with no one injured.

City officials said the protesters have commandeered about 30 public buses and earlier forced military vehicles to halt, in one case climbing on top of two armored personnel carriers, waving flags and shouting “Democracy.”

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

Parliament 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.

A mob of the red-shirted protesters smashed cars carrying Abhisit and his aides on Sunday. The secretary-general of Abhisit’s office, Niphon Promphan, was dragged from the car and beaten, suffering head injuries and broken ribs.

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.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the “situation in Thailand is being brought back under control.”

“In the next few hours, several security measures will be established … to secure major ports, international airports and infrastructure,” he said.

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.

Monday’s first clash began between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., as troops in full combat gear advanced to disperse the protesters, who were occupying a major junction, according to witnesses.

The soldiers fired hundreds of rounds from their M-16 automatic rifles, with Associated Press reporters saying most appeared to have been aimed over the heads of the protesters. The reporters saw protesters throw at least one gasoline bomb which exploded behind the army line and tear gas floated across the eerie dawn scene.

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.

France, Britain, Australia, the United States, 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.”

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 four persons were injured in clashes near Victory Monument, he said.

Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the protesters also used tear gas as well as “weapons” to open fire on the soldiers.

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.

However, all major department stores, malls and jewelry shops in Chinatown shut their doors.

On Sunday night, ousted prime minister Thaksin, regarded by most of the protesters as their leader, called for a revolution and said he might return from exile to lead it.

Thaksin fled the country last year, before a court convicted him in absentia of violating a conflict of interest law.

“Now that they have tanks on the streets, it is time for the people to come out in revolution. And when it is necessary, I will come back to the country,” he said in a telephoned message to followers outside Abhisit’s office.

The message was broadcast over a video link projected on giant screens and relayed on supporters’ Internet sites. It was unclear where Thaksin was calling from, but the former leader has been spending much of his time in Dubai.

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 pro-Thaksin governments, seizing Bangkok’s two airports in November for about a week.

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