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Violence escalates in Bangkok

Cambodia renews call for regional intervention, warns citizens against travel to Thailand, and Vietnam and Singapore express concern over deepening turmoil.

DEADLY battles between Thai troops and the antigovernment Red Shirts escalated in downtown Bangkok on Sunday, as Cambodia warned its citizens against travelling to the troubled kingdom amid growing regional concern over the continuing violence.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Sunday that Cambodia would continue to push for other ASEAN nations to intervene. This proposal was tabled by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong last month, but current bloc leader Vietnam rejected it at the time as being “not practical”.

On Saturday, however, the Vietnamese foreign ministry expressed concern about the “worsening situation in Thailand”, and fellow ASEAN member Singapore warned on the same day that the violence could “slip out of control”.

Koy Kuong said Sunday that Cambodia was also “concerned” about the situation in Bangkok, in particular the mounting death toll.

One more protester was killed during clashes Sunday, bringing the death toll to at least 29, with more than 220 people injured since the army moved to seal off the protest area last week.

“Cambodia asked Vietnam, as the chair of ASEAN, to urgently address this issue ... but at the time, Thailand rejected this and said they could control the situation,” Koy Kuong said, referring to the April proposal.

“Cambodia sees now that the situation is worse. We support Vietnam, and if the situation in Bangkok continues to worsen, it will affect ASEAN’s image,” he said.

“We continued to appeal to the public to avoid travelling to Bangkok if it is not necessary,” Koy Kuong added. “People who are in Bangkok should avoid demonstration sites, and if anything happens to them, they should contact embassy officials for assistance.”

Running street fights
Sporadic gunfire continued to echo around the fringes of the Red Shirts’ sprawling encampment, and a swathe of Bangkok was shrouded in black smoke after demonstrators torched piles of tyres in the streets.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva vowed Sunday that there would be no turning back on the government’s policy of sealing the protesters inside their fortified camp.

“Your rally has been used by terrorists. It’s not a rally for democracy,” he said in a television address, as Thai protesters appealed for United Nations-mediated talks with the government.

A top protest leader urged the revered king to intervene in the crisis, which has turned areas of the city into no-go zones as troops fire live ammunition at demonstrators, some armed or using slingshots and fireworks.

The Red Shirts are ready to enter peace talks with the government “immediately” as long as the UN mediates, protest leader Nattawut Saikuar told reporters.

“We want the UN because we don’t trust we will receive justice from organisations in Thailand,” he said.

But the idea was quickly shot down by the government, which has repeatedly warned foreign governments not to meddle in its affairs.

“As for the call of UN interference, no governments allow any organisations to intervene in their internal affairs,” spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.

Previous talks between the two sides have failed to yield an agreement, despite an offer – since withdrawn – by the embattled Abhisit to hold elections in November if the anti-government demonstrators go home.

The Thai army put off a plan on Sunday to impose a curfew in parts of the city, but did not rule out restricting nighttime movements if the situation deteriorates further.

Authorities said they would send workers from the Red Cross to help antigovernment protesters – particularly women, children and the elderly – who want to leave the vast protest area in the heart of the capital.

“Men can also leave the site, but they have to show they are unarmed,” army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd told reporters.

Red Shirt leaders blamed the violence on government forces as the protesters pushed for a negotiated settlement.

“We call for the government to stop firing and to withdraw soldiers who are blocking the area around the protest site,” said Red Shirt leader Kokaew Pikulthong.

Another protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, called on Thailand’s king to intervene, saying he was the “only hope” for an end to a crisis that has left
more than 50 people dead and 1,600 wounded in total since violence first broke out at protest sites last month.

“As people in this country, we would like his kindness,” Jatuporn said. “I believe Thais will feel the same, that His Majesty is our only hope.”

Thai authorities are seeking to choke off food and water to end an occupation of the city centre that has spurred the country’s worst political violence in 18 years. Demonstrators failed to disperse earlier this month after Abhisit offered to cut his term short, prompting the military action.

“Please stay,” protest leader Weng Tojirakarn told supporters from the main stage on Sunday. “If there are fewer people, that will be a chance for us to be dispersed.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP AND BLOOMBERG

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