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Red Shirt leader wounded as demonstration turns violent

world Updated: May 13, 2010 19:29 IST

AFP
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A Thai protest leader was seriously wounded as gunshots and an explosion rang out Thursday at a vast protest camp in Bangkok after the army threatened to seal off the site, a hospital source said.

The violence came after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva shelved a plan for November elections and hopes faded for an imminent resolution to a crippling two-month crisis that has sparked outbreaks of violence, leaving 29 people dead and 1,000 injured.

Renegade Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol was shot and seriously wounded, according to a nurse at the hospital where he was admitted.

It was unclear who was behind the shooting at the site, which is occupied by thousands of protesters.

"I have cancelled the election date... because protesters refuse to disperse," Abhisit said earlier. "I have told security officials to restore normality as soon as possible."

An army spokesman said earlier that troops would surround the rally site in the heart of Bangkok with armoured vehicles and that demonstrators would be allowed to leave but not enter the area.

"Snipers will be deployed in the operation," said the spokesman, Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, after issuing a series of tough warnings to the "Red Shirt" protesters in recent weeks.

Sunsern said soldiers would be authorised to use real bullets for warning shots, self-defence and against "armed terrorists," although the government did not announce any immediate plan to forcibly disperse protesters.

An unsuccessful attempt by troops on April 10 to clear a different area in the capital's historic district sparked fierce street fighting that left 25 people dead and hundreds wounded.

The Reds say the government is undemocratic because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ousted elected allies of their hero, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was unseated in a 2006 coup.

Large crowds of Red Shirts, including some elderly, women and children, had remained Thursday in the protest site, which has been fortified with barricades made from razor wire, fuel-soaked tyres and sharpened bamboo spears.

Some foreign embassies in the area closed early due to the threatened lockdown, with the US, British, and Dutch embassies suspending visa services.

The plan was announced after authorities failed to carry out a threat to cut off utilities to the site at midnight Wednesday, although Abhisit said that the action would still go ahead.

Shops, restaurants and other businesses in the area were closing early in response to a request by the authorities.

Abhisit had offered to dissolve parliament in the second half of September for elections on November 14 if all parties accepted his reconciliation plan.

The mostly poor and working class Reds, who launched their campaign in mid-March for immediate elections, initially agreed to enter the process but efforts to reach a deal that would see them go home have since broken down.

Observers say there are signs of splits emerging between the moderate and hardline elements within the protest movement.

If Abhisit does not go ahead with the proposed election "he doesn't have a plan or even a means of dealing with a very real crisis," said Thailand analyst Michael Montesano.

"This puts his government in a really rough position," added Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Another Red Shirt leader, Weng Tojirakarn, said that scrapping the election and dissolution of parliament was a betrayal of the Thai public.

"The government has committed political suicide if there is no election," he said earlier.