(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
BANGKOK — Thai soldiers and police fought pitched battles Saturday night with anti-government demonstrators in streets enveloped in tear gas, but troops later retreated and asked protesters to do the same. At least 15 people were killed and more than 650 wounded in Thailand's worst political violence in nearly 20 years.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva went on national television shortly before midnight to pay condolences to the families of victims, and indicated he would not bow to protesters' demands to dissolve Parliament and call new elections.
"The government and I are still responsible for easing the situation and trying to bring peace and order to the country," Abhisit said, vowing a transparent investigation into the violence.
The army had vowed to clear the "Red Shirt" protesters out of one of their two bases in Bangkok by nightfall, but the push instead set off street fighting. There was a continuous sound of gunfire and explosions, mostly from Molotov cocktails. After more than two hours of fierce clashes, the soldiers pulled back.
Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd went on television to ask the protesters to retreat as well. He also accused them of firing live rounds and throwing grenades during the fighting. An APTN cameraman saw two Red Shirt security guards carrying assault rifles.
"The security forces have now retreated to a certain extent from the
Red Shirts," Sansern said. He said a senior government official had
been asked to coordinate with the protesters to restore peace.
Red Shirts' demonstrations are part of a long-running battle between
the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006
military coup that removed him from power.
They see the
Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of an elite impervious to the
plight of Thailand's poor and claim he took office illegitimately in
December 2008 after the military pressured Parliament to vote for him.
government's Erawan emergency center said tallies from four Bangkok
hospitals showed the death toll early Sunday had risen to at least 15 —
four soldiers and 11 civilians.
Among them was Japanese
cameraman Hiro Muramoto who worked for Thomson Reuters news agency. In
a statement, Reuters said he was shot in the chest while covering the
The protesters marched the body of a man they said was
killed in the fighting to one of their encampments. They carried the
man — who had part of his head blown off — on a stretcher.
injury toll for the day rose to 678, according to the Erawan emergency
center. The army said any live rounds were fired only into the air, but
confirmed that two of its soldiers had been shot. Government spokesman
Panithan Wattanayakorn said more than 60 troops had been injured.
made repeated charges to clear the Red Shirts, while some tourists
stood by watching. Two protesters and a Buddhist monk with them were
badly beaten by soldiers and taken away by ambulance.
A Japanese tourist who was wearing a red shirt was also clubbed by soldiers until bystanders rescued him.
Friday, the army failed to prevent demonstrators from breaking into the
compound of a satellite transmission station and briefly restarting a
pro-Red Shirt television station that had been shut down by the
government under a state of emergency. The humiliating rout of troops
and riot police raised questions about how much control Abhisit has
over the police and army.
To effectively confront the
protesters, Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee of Chulalongkorn University said
the government needs the cooperation of the military, but the army may
be reluctant to use force against the protesters.
military has traditionally played a major role in politics, staging
almost a score of coups since the country became a constitutional
monarchy in 1932.
Arrest warrants have been issued for 27 Red Shirt leaders, but none is known to have been taken into custody.
say the demonstrations have cost them hundreds of millions of baht
(tens of millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near the site have
been under virtual siege.