Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Journalists shot as Thai government troops storm barricades

Three foreign journalists were shot, one of them fatally and at least two anti-government protesters were killed in Bangkok today as Thai soldiers and armoured vehicles stormed the barricades of the Redshirt encampment.

An Italian journalist was shot in the stomach while Michel Maas, a Dutch journalist who has written for The Times was shot in the shoulder when soldiers turned their fire on journalists covering the clashes. The third journnalist, a Westerner in his late 40s, was shot in the leg.

At least 12 other people were injured in the battles after Thai troops smashed into the rally zone in Bangkok’s centre, tearing down the barricades of tyres and razor wire.

The armoured vehicles had machineguns mounted on top and the troops wore balaclavas and carried weapons and riot shields as they poured into the encampment that has paralysed the centre of Bangkok for the last six weeks.

Hundreds of armed police formed lines in Sukhumvit Road, a main route to the protest zone.

“This is D-Day,” said a soldier when asked whether this was the final push.

Inside the protest zone, troops fired M-16 rifles at fleeing protesters and shouted: “Come out and surrender or we’ll kill you.”

Red Shirt leaders tried to calm panicking supporters, who include scores of women and children, many of whom were openly crying.

“Please stay calm today, no matter what happens we will stay here together,” Redshirt leader Nattawut Saikuar said from the stage where some protesters were gathered. He directed them to a nearby Buddhist temple for safety.

The government had said the offensive was aimed at establihsing a secure perimeter around the protest base, but the military offensive now appeared to be aimed at completely closing down the camp.

This morning they claimed that some of the protest leaders had fled the rally site, while government troops had successfully gained control of the Lumpini Park area south of the protest camp.

At least 38 people have died since Thursday, bringing the total since April to 67. Over the weekend an air force sergeant was accidentally shot at night by nervous and trigger-happy soldiers; the rest of the dead have been civilians, most of them young men who had been baiting the soldiers.

The protesters, who are demanding the resignation of the Government, are armed with catapults, fireworks and petrol bombs. There have been sightings of Red Shirts carrying hand guns. The Times witnessed one Red Shirt brandishing a handgun, and another a rifle.

However, their weapons are eclipsed in power and range by the automatic rifles carried by the Royal Thai Army.

The problem for the Government is that the Red Shirt loyalists are so entrenched behind high barricades of tyres and bamboo staves, and so determined to resist that any attempt to evict them by force would inevitably bring devastating casualties. Despite this, the Army tightened its noose at dawn, a few hours after the Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, rejected an offer of peace talks by the Red Shirts.

Mr Abhisit said that there would be no talks until the protesters abandoned the Ratchaprasong district, where they have been for six weeks. Satit Wongnongtoey, one of his ministers, said: “The situation could be resolved and lead to negotiations when demonstrators disperse.” He quoted the Prime Minister as saying that “the situation will end only when the protest stops”, a condition that will certainly be rejected by the protest leaders.

Compared with the two previous days, when soldiers have been using live rounds to clear main roads north and south of the central protest area, there was less shooting yesterday. In Ratchaprasong, the shopping and business district where the Red Shirt leaders address their supporters from a covered stage, life continued as usual, with several thousand people ignoring the Government warning to go home.

But the offer of talks appeared to suggest that after two months of protest the Red Shirts felt their strength to be ebbing.

A Red Shirt leader told The Times that there were splits within the movement’s decision-making body. Older members had pressed for an offer last week by Mr Abhisit of new elections in November to be accepted. But the argument was won by younger Red Shirts, who insisted that Suthep Thaugsuban, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of security affairs, must be prosecuted for his alleged responsibility in ordering troops to fire on civilians — a condition that the Government rejected.

“If they knew that nearly 40 people would be killed in the next four days, I think they would have taken a different decision,” the Red Shirt source said.

General Anupong Paochinda, the head of the Thai Army, has expressed his reluctance to use force against the protesters and said that the only solution would be a political one. Members of Thailand’s Senate had offered to mediate talks with the Government which broke down last week.

“Negotiations are over now,” said General Lertrat Rattanavanich, one of a group of some 60 senators who had tried to mediate.


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