Security forces and agitated protesters faced off at a major intersection Friday after deady grenade attacks rattled Thailand's chaotic capital — a scene of tense, weekslong confrontations between die-hard demonstrators and a wavering government.
The late-night attacks killed at least one person and wounded 86, according to the government's Erawan Emergency Center, which handles victim counts in crises and disasters. Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban had said three had died. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the conflicting accounts.
The attackers shot five M-79 grenades from near where anti-government Red Shirt protesters have been encamped and the blasts struck areas where counter-demonstrators gathered, but the government stopped short of directly blaming the Red Shirts for the attack.
Thousands of mostly rural Red Shirts have been entrenched on Bangkok's streets since March 12 in a campaign to dissolve Parliament and hold immediate elections, and Thailand's powerful military has warned them that time is running out to clear the streets or face a crackdown.
In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced concern that the situation could escalate and called for dialogue, his spokesman said.
The violence occurred in Bangkok's financial district where soldiers have been stationed near a key intersection heading to an upscale hotel-and-shopping zone, where Red Shirts have built barricades of tires and bamboo stakes. Suthep urged people demonstrating against the Red Shirts to leave the area for their own safety.
A tense calm returned Friday to the financial district, where many shops and banks closed and some bore shattered windows from the overnight blasts.
Silom Road, the district's main thoroughfare, is also a popular tourist destination, filled with restaurants and some of Bangkok's most popular nightlife venues. But late Thursday, it looked more like a war zone with grenade blasts lighting the night sky and panicked people fleeing the scene. Some rushed the bloodied wounded to safety as throngs of riot police and armed soldiers swarmed the area.
A protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, said he spent the night in talks with Deputy Prime Minister Korbsak Sabhavasu, but that there appeared to be no resolution to the crisis.
At dawn, police and soldiers stood guard at the mouth of Silom, while across the intersection, Red Shirts screamed slogans and brandished sharpened bamboo staves. Bangkok's elevated train service and subway shut down stops in protest-affected areas.
The Red Shirts consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 after months of demonstrations by the Yellow Shirts.
The Red Shirts believe the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is illegitimate because it came to power under military pressure through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments. They want Parliament dissolved and new elections held.
The first three blasts happened at about 8 p.m. at an elevated train stop on Silom, and passengers were rushed away down the station's stairs by soldiers who were stationed there.
About 30 minutes later two more blasts struck an intersection filled with demonstrators protesting against the Red Shirts as well as bystanders. One exploded in front of a sandwich shop and the other in front of a bank.
Chaos ensued, as scores of wounded were tended to and carried to ambulances. The front window of the sandwich shop was shattered, and a pool of blood was on its stoop.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the blasts were under investigation but that it was too soon to come to any conclusions. "This is the work of the terrorists that the government has always been wanting to get rid off," he said.
Since the beginning of the crisis, Abhisit's government has threatened to curtail the protests but has failed to follow through. Military units from the 200,000-strong army have been routed in several encounters with the crudely armed demonstrators. And the police have often melted when faced with determined rioters.
In a previous paroxysm of violence, 25 people were killed and more than 800 wounded on April 10 when the army sought to clear out Red Shirt protesters from an encampment in another part of the capital.
Since the protests began, more than two dozen grenade attacks and bomb explosions have rocked the city. Nobody has yet been apprehended, giving rise to speculation, including that some attacks were the work of renegade army officers either seeking to provoke the Red Shirts or to settle scores within the fractious military.
Culprits in violent incidents related to politics are rarely brought to justice. There have still been no arrests, for example, in mysterious bombings on New Year's Eve 2006.
The anti-Red Shirt group includes office employees, middle class
families, academics, some low-wage workers and members of the Yellow
Shirts, a group that supports the current government and who themselves
rampaged through Bangkok and seized the city's airports two years ago.
some are genuinely aggrieved by the inconveniences wrought by the
protests, many seem to have primarily political objections to the Red
Shirts, including claiming the movement is directed against the
country's widely revered monarch.
Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, an
associate professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn
University, said she did not wish to speculate on who may have been
behind the bombings.
"But the situation could provide a good excuse for the government to use force against the Red Shirt protesters," she said.