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Thailand defends deadly crackdown on protesters

An antigovernment protester fired a firecracker-loaded slingshot at Thai military forces during street clashes in Bangkok yesterday as violence in the central part of the city escalated. An antigovernment protester fired a firecracker-loaded slingshot at Thai military forces during street clashes in Bangkok yesterday as violence in the central part of the city escalated. (Andy Nelson/ Getty Images)
By Vijay Joshi
Associated Press / May 16, 2010

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BANGKOK — Thailand’s leader defended the deadly army crackdown on protesters besieging the capital’s heart, saying yesterday that the country’s very future was at stake.

Protesters dragged away the bodies of three people from sidewalks — shot by army snipers, they say — as soldiers blocked major roads and pinned up notices of a “Live Firing Zone.’’

“I insist that what we are doing is necessary,’’ Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a defiant broadcast on national television, making it clear he would not compromise. “The government must move forward. We cannot retreat because we are doing things that will benefit the entire country.’’

Yesterday, protesters launched a steady stream of rudimentary missiles at troops who fired back with live ammunition in several areas around a key commercial district of Bangkok.

Army snipers were perched with high-powered rifles atop tall buildings, viewing the action below through telescopic sights. Thick black smoke billowed from tires set ablaze by demonstrators as gunfire rang out.

The spiraling violence has raised concerns of sustained, widespread chaos in Thailand — a key US ally and Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist destination that promotes its easygoing culture as the “Land of Smiles.’’

“The situation right now is getting close to a civil war each minute,’’ Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, told reporters. “Please don’t ask us how we are going to end this situation, because we are the ones being killed.’’

Since Thursday, the once-bustling commercial and shopping district has become a war zone with Red Shirt protesters firing weapons, throwing homemade explosives, and hurling rocks at troops firing live ammunition and rubber bullets.

The violence ignited after the army started forming a cordon around the protesters’ encampment and a sniper shot and gravely wounded a rogue general reputed to be the Red Shirts’ military adviser.

At least 24 people have been killed and more than 194 wounded since Thursday. Previous violence since the protest began in mid-March caused 29 deaths and injured 1,640.

This is the most prolonged and deadliest bout of political violence that Thailand has faced in decades despite having a history of coups — 18 since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The protesters have occupied a tire-and-bamboo-spike barricaded, 1-square-mile zone in one of the capital’s ritziest areas, Rajprasong, for about two months to push their demands for Abhisit to resign immediately, dissolve Parliament, and call new elections.

The crisis had appeared to be near a resolution last week when Abhisit offered to hold elections in November, a year early. But the hopes were dashed after Red Shirt leaders made more demands.

The political uncertainty has spooked foreign investors and damaged the vital tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy, Southeast Asia’s second largest.

Abhisit, in his first comments since Thursday, said the protesters have “held the people of Bangkok hostage’’ and described them as “armed terrorists’’ who attacked security forces.

“Officers on duty have the right to defend themselves,’’ he said.

The Red Shirts, drawn mostly from the rural and urban poor, say Abhisit’s coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it symbolizes a national elite indifferent to the poor.

The fighting is taking place in the no man’s land between the encampment and the army cordon, a normally bustling area with hotels, businesses, embassies, shopping malls, and apartments. Most of them are now shut and public transport is off the roads.

The army said its cordon has been effective, and the number of protesters at the encampment has dwindled by half. Water and power also were cut off to the area Thursday.