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Thai protesters defiant, fighting feared

Thousands of Thai protesters refused to leave Bangkok's streets on Sunday despite three days of fighting that has killed 24 people and spiralled into chaotic urban warfare, with both sides calling for reinforcements.

world Updated: May 16, 2010 08:21 IST

Thousands of Thai protesters refused to leave Bangkok's streets on Sunday despite three days of fighting that has killed 24 people and spiralled into chaotic urban warfare, with both sides calling for reinforcements.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva vowed on Saturday to stop mostly rural and urban poor protesters from toppling his government, which is backed by Thailand's royalist elite, a group the protesters accuse of subverting democracy.

The streets were quiet but tense on Sunday a day after soldiers fired live rounds at demonstrators who fought back with petrol bombs, rocks and crude homemade rockets in two major areas of the city, as the army tried to isolate a sprawling encampment in central Bangkok occupied by the protesters for six weeks.

"We will not retreat," Abhisit said in a televised statement late on Saturday. "We cannot allow the country to be in a condition in which people can establish an armed group to topple the government that they are not happy with."

On their part, the "red shirt" protesters accuse Abhisit and his royalist backers of meddling in the judicial system in the past to bring down elected governments and put themselves in power.

Many protest leaders now face terrorism charges that carry a maximum penalty of death, raising the confrontation's stakes.

The protesters, who have adopted red as a protest colour and broadly support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, set fire to vehicles and hurled rocks at troops who set up razor wire across across deserted roads on Saturday in the business district.

Soldiers can shoot if protesters come within 36 metres (120 ft) of army lines, said army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd, adding more soldiers were needed to establish control.

The crisis has paralysed Bangkok, squeezed Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy, scared off tourists and choked investment in one of Asia's most promising emerging markets.

Witnesses describe the bloodshed as largely one-sided, as troops armed with automatic rifles easily dodge projectiles and open fire with automatic weapons. Some protesters have been killed by snipers positioned on the tops of office towers.

No soldiers have been identified in the official tolls that show 24 people killed and 198 wounded.

NEW PROTEST SITE

Several hundred protesters gathered early on Sunday in the working-class Klong Toey district where thousands massed the night before, using a truck as a makeshift stage, in a possible move toward setting up a new protest site. Smoke billowed from walls of burning tyres on a road leading to the area.

Red shirt leader Nattawut Saikua told thousands still hunkered down in their main encampment late on Saturday that reinforcements were coming.

"We have been contacted by leaders in several provinces that they will mobilise to help us pressure the government," he said.

The U.S. Embassy has offered to evacuate families and partners of U.S. government staff based in Bangkok on a voluntary basis, and urged its citizens against travel to Bangkok.

The army is battling to set up a perimeter around the 3.5 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) encampment where at least 5,000 people remain, including women and children, behind barricades made of tyres, poles and concrete, topped by razor wire.

"The troops may be making some progress on sealing the area but at a great cost," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, adding rising casualties could weaken Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

"Is the government successfully dispersing the crowd and progressing toward ending the crisis? The answer is no, not so far, and it's a long way to go."

However, there was evidence the government's strategy of starving protesters out of their encampment was beginning to have some effect.

Supplies of food, water and fuel were starting to run thin as the red shirt delivery trucks were being blocked, said one protest leader, Kwanchai Praipanabut, adding they still had enough to hold out for days.