BANGKOK (AP) — A major Thai hospital evacuated hundreds of patients and suspended all but emergency surgery Friday after anti-government protesters stormed in to hunt for security forces they suspected were taking positions there overlooking their barricaded enclave.
A group of the so-called Red Shirts barged into Chulalongkorn Hospital late Thursday despite pleas from its director, then withdrew after not finding soldiers or police within the sprawling compound.
The brief raid was a public relations black eye for the Red Shirts, who insist they are simply peaceful protesters trying to overthrow a government they see as illegitimate — although the seven-week standoff in the capital has already sparked the country’s worst political violence in nearly two decades.
Protest leaders struggled to make amends for the hospital raid, apologizing, promising to leave the facility alone and removing some of the barricades blocking it as a gesture of contrition. But the Red Shirts later put the barricades back in place and missed a meeting with hospital administrators to discuss how to keep the patients and staff safe.
The Red Shirts, drawn mostly from the rural and urban poor, are demanding the dissolution of Parliament and new elections, saying Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came to power through the connivance of Bangkok’s elite bureaucrats and the military.
Mr. Abhisit took the Red Shirts to task for their recent actions, which have turned parts of Bangkok’s commercial heart into a barricaded protest camp.
“It’s not necessary for me to condemn [the hospital break-in] since Thai society and the world community have already done that,” Mr. Abhisit said, adding that the government would “not allow any movements that pose threats to the public.”
Despite such warnings, the Red Shirts have defied authorities at every turn, entering the parliament building, laying siege to a telecommunications complex, blocking roads and staging mass motorized rallies since setting up camp in the capital March 12. At least 27 people have died and nearly 1,000 have been injured in violence since then.
Security forces have in almost every instance been unable or unwilling to stop the Red Shirt forays, including the incursion by up to 100 protesters into Chulalongkorn Hospital, which stands on the edge of the protest camp.
Hospital director Adisorn Patradul said all but two of the hospital’s 500 patients were either discharged or sent to other facilities Friday in the wake of the raid.
“The incident yesterday clearly showed that it was longer safe in the hospital. They could come in anywhere they want,” Mr. Adisorn said.
Weng Tojirakarn, a Red Shirt leader and medical doctor, issued a “deep apology” for the raid, calling it “inappropriate, too much, and unreasonable.”
It was not clear whether Weng apologized because of the sharp negative reaction, or whether the foray was staged by some of the more radical Red Shirts without the approval of their leaders.
About 100 police were sent to guard the hospital grounds, but Mr. Adisorn said no security forces had been allowed inside the hospital. He appealed for the protesters to move their barricades and allow the hospital to return to full functioning, but chided the Red Shirt leaders for missing a meeting to discuss the problem.
“They can protest all they want but they should not come here, and they should not have prevented us from receiving service,” said an angry Purin Supadith, one of many being turned away at the hospital’s outpatient department Friday morning.
The lengthy crisis has hurt business in the capital and devastated Thailand’s vital tourist industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy.
But Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said Friday the economy as a whole is still faring well, with high foreign exchange reserves.
“The Thai economy is showing great resilience. So I think we can survive this. We’ll have no problem staging a quick and immediate rebound,” Mr. Korn said.
The Central Bank on Thursday raised its growth forecast for 2010 on the expectations of stronger exports as the global economy improves. It now expects economic growth in a range of 4.3 percent to 5.8 percent, compared with an earlier forecast of 3.3 percent to 5.5 percent.
Associated Press reporters Thanyarat Doksone, Jocelyn Gecker, Grant Peck, Ravi Nessman and Stephen Wright contributed to this report.