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Thailand shuts down second airport

Thai authorities shut down Bangkok's second airport after it was overrun by anti-government protesters.

world Updated: Nov 27, 2008 09:58 IST

Thai authorities shut down Bangkok's second airport on Thursday after it was overrun by anti-government protesters, completely cutting off the capital from air traffic as the prime minister rejected their demands to resign, deepening the country's crisis.

Thailand's powerful army commander, who has remained neutral in the conflict, stepped into the fray on Wednesday, urging Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to step down.

He also asked thousands of protesters to end their siege of the main international Suwarnabhumi airport since Tuesday night, which has forced authorities to shut down the facility and cancel hundreds of flights, drawing world attention to a turmoil that has reduced Thailand to a dysfunctional nation.

The anti-government protests, which gathered pace four months ago, have paralyzed the government, battered the stock market, spooked foreign investors and dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry.

The crisis worsened early on Thursday as authorities shut down the Don Muang domestic airport, which had been receiving some diverted flights from Suwarnabhumi.

Serirat Prasutanont, chief of Thailand Airport Authority, said authorities feared that protesters who stormed the terminal building late on Wednesday might harm passengers and aircraft. He said authorities might consider using the U Ta Pao air force base, 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok. "We will also alert all of airports nationwide to be ready to receive more diverted flights," he said.

The protests are being led by a loose coalition known as the People's Alliance for Democracy. It accuses Somchai of acting as the puppet for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a September 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law. Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law.

But Somchai, who returned from Peru on Wednesday but was forced to land in the northern city of Chiang Mai, remained defiant. Somchai said in an address to the nation that he came to power through elections and has "a job to protect democracy for the people of Thailand."

The statement amounted to a rejection of Army Gen. Anupong Paochinda's suggestion to quit, which seemed to put him on a collision course with the military, although the general has said he would not launch a coup.

Somsak Kosaisuk, a key protest alliance leader, said protesters stormed Don Muang airport because they want to prevent members of Somchai's Cabinet from flying to Chiang Mai for a proposed emergency Cabinet meeting on Thursday.

The drive from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes about eight hours. Still, government spokesman Nattawut Saikau said the emergency meeting would go ahead. "The key issue is how to deal with escalating violence in the country," he told The Associated Press. The People's Alliance for Democracy insists it would continue its airport occupation and other protest activities until Somchai resigns. It rejected the general's proposal for new elections, pushing instead for the appointment of a temporary government. As the deadlock continued, political violence spread Wednesday to Chiang Mai, where government supporters attacked a radio station aligned with the protesters. Separately, there were unconfirmed reports that one man was killed and several people assaulted in an attack on the city's local airport.

Thousands of travelers were stranded in Bangkok when members of the alliance swarmed the airport on Tuesday night, forcing a halt to virtually all outgoing flights.

Several thousands passengers were bused to city hotels Wednesday to await developments, but many other passengers spent a second night at the airport after a day of behind-the-scenes negotiations failed. All flights have been suspended until further notice. Among those stranded were Americans trying to get home for the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.

Cheryl Turner, 63, of Scottsdale, Arizona, had asked neighbors to pull an 18-pound turkey from her freezer a day ahead of time to defrost so she could cook it for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. "My turkey is sitting in the sink at home," she said. The protest alliance launched its current campaign in late August, storming the grounds of the prime minister's office, which they continue to use as their stronghold. The group has also tried twice to blockade Parliament, in one case setting off a daylong street battle with police that left two people dead and hundreds injured.

Skirmishes on Bangkok streets on Tuesday and Wednesday left more than a dozen people hurt. The action came as the protest alliance's public support seemed to wane, and they appeared to be seeking confrontations to up the ante in their struggle.

First Published: Nov 27, 2008 09:52 IST