Thai army breaks through protest barricades

Thai army breaks through protest barricades
# 19 May 2010 04:30 (UTC +04:00)
Baku-APA. Thai troops and armored vehicles broke through barricades of tires and staves on Wednesday in a fresh offensive to evict thousands of anti-government protesters from their fortified camp in central Bangkok, witnesses said, APA reports quoting Reuters.
With troops firing tear gas ahead of the assault, the armored vehicles moved down a road toward an area where most of the estimated 3,000 demonstrators were rallying.
At least two people were shot in a gunfight in the spot where the military was coming in, one in the chest while trying to help a fellow protester. The demonstrators responded by firing at soldiers, a Reuters witness said.
Protesters ignited barricades of tires and bamboo soaked in kerosene as the military vehicles and troops arrived, causing thick black smoke to billow high over skyscrapers in the area, and camouflage thousands of demonstrators who have occupied the heart of Bangkok’s commercial district for more than six weeks.
Troops earlier used bullhorns and loudspeakers to urge protesters and civilians to leave, as military helicopters circled overhead.
"Please leave the site immediately. Officials are about to conduct an operation," a soldier said over a loudspeaker.
The military offensive came a day after the collapse of a proposal for talks aimed at ending five days of chaotic street fighting that descended into urban warfare, which killed 39 people and wounded nearly 300..
Troops followed that up with tear gas.
"I have no plan to flee," said 54-year-old protester Saman Niyakul from Ubon Ratchathani province as he prepared a homemade rocket to launch at the troops. "I am here to fight for better Thailand. I don’t mind dying for my country."
Leaders called on protesters not to panic and not to break into nearby buildings. "We must not start the violence. We will stay here together and fight together," a protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, said on a stage at the main encampment.
It was unclear whether the military was launching a long-anticipated operation to evict protesters or trying to first flush out women and children from the sprawling encampment where explosives, guns and grenades are thought to be stashed.
Unrest has been reported in other parts of the capital. Hardcore red-shirted protesters set fire on a government building and blockaded traffic in a northern suburb.
At least two dozen armored personnel carriers have approached the encampment.
"We’re asking everybody to be ready for a crackdown because armored personnel carriers are beginning to move in (to the area)," said Nattawut.
Some troops in the business district were as close as 200 meters (650 ft) from the protesters’ three-meter (10-foot) high barricade, a Reuters photographer said. Pick-up trucks and buses carrying soldiers also arrived in the area.
About 3,000 of the mostly rural and urban poor protestors, who broadly support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, remain in the 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) encampment in Bangkok’s high-end shopping, hotel and diplomatic district.
An advisor to Thailand’s prime minister said shortly after the offensive started that the government was ready to talk to the red-shirts if they called off their protest.
"We are still ready to talk. My line is open but the protest has to end first," advisor Korbsak Sabhavasau told Channel 3 television.
One of the main protest leaders, Nattawut Saikua, told supporters from the encampment’s stage that negotiations were under way. "But if they come, we will let it happen and fight on from here."
Soon after he spoke, protest leaders broke into songs, as people danced around the protest stage, and in a surreal sight, comedy skits were performed on the stage.
The red shirts accuse the British-born, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of lacking a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 with tacit backing from the military, and have demanded immediate elections.
Troops had thrown a cordon around the protest site, a "tent city" at the Rachaprasong intersection, paralyzing the heart of Bangkok. Hundreds of women and children have taken refuge in a temple inside the protest area.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban has said moving in on the encampment had to be "a last resort."
Protesters have stockpiled food, water, and supplies in the encampment since Thursday when the assassination of a major-general allied to the red shirts, and an army operation to pressure them, sparked the latest wave of violence that has killed 68 people and wounded more than 1,700 since the demonstrations began in mid-March.