Thai authorities launched a crackdown on anti-government protesters in Bangkok yesterday, sparking violent clashes that left more than 130 injured as soldiers fired warning shots and tear gas.
Protesters hurled rocks as troops tried to clear them from the capital’s historic district, where tensions escalated after weeks of mass rallies by the “Red Shirts,” who have defied a state of emergency in the city.
Thousands of demonstrators also continued to occupy a key intersection in the main commercial district of the Thai capital, demanding Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva call immediate elections.
The authorities’ operation was focused on Bangkok’s old city, where troops fired live rounds into the air to ward off demonstrators, said army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, adding that two soldiers had suffered gunshot wounds.
The security forces were determined to finish dispersing protesters from the area by nightfall, Sunsern said.
Emergency services said 135 people had been hospitalized, including soldiers and policemen.
The protests also spread to the northern city of Chiang Mai, where hundreds of Red Shirts massed outside a provincial hall chanting anti-government slogans.
Earlier, dozens of Red Shirts tried to force their way into a military base in Bangkok, but were repelled with water cannon. The army also deployed armored personnel vehicles at some locations in the city.
“It’s an operation to reclaim areas from protesters under the state of emergency,” said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.
“The government has no other choice but to enforce the law and prosecute those who violated the law,” he said. “The general public must avoid traveling to the area where the operation is taking place.”
Abhisit invoked emergency rule on Wednesday after the Red Shirts stormed parliament, prompting lawmakers to flee. The embattled prime minister has insisted he will not cede to the Red Shirts’ demand to dissolve parliament for elections.
Tens of thousands of police and soldiers have been mobilized to restore order, but top Red Shirts remained defiant.
“I’d like to tell Abhisit that you can come and crack down on our rally anytime,” a Red Shirt leader, Nattawut Saikuar, said from the rally stage set up in the heart of Bangkok that has become the focus of the protests. “We want to stay until you dissolve the House.”
The Red Shirts, many of whom support ousted former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, accuse the government of being illegitimate because it came to power with military backing in 2008 after a court ousted Thaksin’s allies from power.
The Red Shirts managed to restore their anti-government People Television (PTV), which was shut down on Thursday under emergency rule aimed at quelling the turmoil, but troops later retook the building, pulling the plug again.
Arrest warrants have been issued for many of the top leaders of the red-clad movement, but so far none are reported to have been taken into custody.
Abhisit, who remained holed up at an army barracks, insisted his government would not back down.
“I instructed all officials, police and soldiers that we have no right to be disheartened or fail with this mission,” he said late on Friday, adding that the top priority was to uphold the rule of law.
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