15 dead, 650 wounded in Bangkok riots

Army pulls back, calls on protesters to do the same; PM will not step down.

Bangkok Riots (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Bangkok Riots
(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 theRed Shirts," Sansern said. He said a senior government official hadbeen asked to coordinate with the protesters to restore peace.
TheRed Shirts' demonstrations are part of a long-running battle betweenthe mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister ThaksinShinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006military coup that removed him from power.
They see theOxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of an elite impervious to theplight of Thailand's poor and claim he took office illegitimately inDecember 2008 after the military pressured Parliament to vote for him.
Thegovernment's Erawan emergency center said tallies from four Bangkokhospitals showed the death toll early Sunday had risen to at least 15 —four soldiers and 11 civilians.
Among them was Japanesecameraman Hiro Muramoto who worked for Thomson Reuters news agency. Ina statement, Reuters said he was shot in the chest while covering thefighting.
The protesters marched the body of a man they said waskilled in the fighting to one of their encampments. They carried theman — who had part of his head blown off — on a stretcher.
Theinjury toll for the day rose to 678, according to the Erawan emergencycenter. The army said any live rounds were fired only into the air, butconfirmed that two of its soldiers had been shot. Government spokesmanPanithan Wattanayakorn said more than 60 troops had been injured.
Soldiersmade repeated charges to clear the Red Shirts, while some touristsstood by watching. Two protesters and a Buddhist monk with them werebadly 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.
OnFriday, the army failed to prevent demonstrators from breaking into thecompound of a satellite transmission station and briefly restarting apro-Red Shirt television station that had been shut down by thegovernment under a state of emergency. The humiliating rout of troopsand riot police raised questions about how much control Abhisit hasover the police and army.
To effectively confront theprotesters, Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee of Chulalongkorn University saidthe government needs the cooperation of the military, but the army maybe reluctant to use force against the protesters.
Thailand'smilitary has traditionally played a major role in politics, stagingalmost a score of coups since the country became a constitutionalmonarchy in 1932.
Arrest warrants have been issued for 27 Red Shirt leaders, but none is known to have been taken into custody.
Merchantssay the demonstrations have cost them hundreds of millions of baht(tens of millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near the site havebeen under virtual siege.