Red Shirts remain defiant after attempts to remove them left over 800 injured; army retreats, calling for a truce after protesters took five soldiers hostage.
It’s frightening. We heard explosions and people were running all around.
DEFIANT Red Shirt Thai protesters vowed Sunday to keep up their bid to topple the government, after the country’s worst political violence in almost two decades left 21 dead and over 800 injured.
Protest leaders, who have promised to maintain their campaign until the government dissolves parliament and calls fresh elections, demanded Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva step down and leave the country.
Seventeen civilians, including a Japanese TV cameraman, and four soldiers were killed in Saturday’s crackdown on the Red Shirt supporters of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok, the emergency services said.
On Sunday evening Red Shirts gathered to mourn the loss of their comrades at the city’s Democracy Monument – the scene of a fierce battle on Saturday – where grieving relatives led a procession holding up gold-framed pictures of the dead.
They were followed by crying men carrying caskets, a couple containing bodies draped with Thai flags and flowers. Some onlooking protesters prayed and others waved red banners.
It was the latest chapter in years of turmoil pitting the ruling elite against the mainly poor and rural Red Shirts, who say the government is illegitimate as it came to power in 2008 after a court ousted Thaksin’s allies from power.
The violence erupted when troops tried to clear one of two sites in the centre of the capital occupied by the protesters for the past month. Soldiers fired in the air and used tear gas, and the Red Shirts responded by hurling rocks.
As the clashes intensified gunshots echoed around the city, and each side accused the other of using live ammunition. Emergency services said two protesters were killed by gunshot wounds to the head.
The government denied troops had opened fire on protesters with live rounds.
“Weapons were used only in self-defence and to fire into the air. We don’t find any evidence that soldiers used weapons against people,” government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told a press conference.
More than 200 soldiers were injured, 90 of them seriously, he said. One of the dead was a colonel.
At one stage protesters overwhelmed and captured an armoured personnel carrier, and army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said government weapons had fallen into the hands of the demonstrators.
The army later retreated, calling for a truce with the demonstrators, who were holding five soldiers hostage. Thousands of protesters remained on the streets at the two main protest sites on Sunday.
“Abhisit must leave Thailand,” Red Shirt leader Veera Musikapong told supporters. “We ask all government officials to stop serving this government.”
The government said an investigation had been launched into the violence, and that negotiations were under way to bring about a resolution to the standoff without more unrest.
The Thomson Reuters news agency said one of its journalists, Japanese cameraman Hiro Muramoto, died after being shot in the chest during the protests.
Tokyo urged Bangkok to investigate the death and ensure the safety of Japanese nationals.
The unrest marked Thailand’s worst political violence since 1992, and the United States urged both sides to show restraint.
The protesters called on the country’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene to prevent further bloodshed.
“Did anybody inform the king that his children were killed in the middle of the road without justice?” Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said. “Is there anyone close to him who told him of the gunfights?”
Although he has no official political role, the hospitalised king is seen as a unifying figure. During a 1992 uprising he chastised both the military and protest leaders, effectively bringing the violence to an end.
Thai flags, red roses and incense sticks were placed on pools of blood where protesters were killed or wounded in the Khaosan Road backpacker district, a few yards from a clump of ruined cars with their windows smashed in.
“It’s frightening. We heard explosions, and people were running all around,” said Sharon Aradbasson, a 34-year-old Israeli tourist.
Abhisit offered his condolences over the deaths but refused to bow to the protesters’ calls to resign.
Thaksin, who was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006 and is now based mainly in Dubai, also offered his condolences to the victims and their families via the micro-blogging site Twitter.
Arrest warrants have been issued for many of the senior Red leaders, but so far none are reported to have been taken into custody. AFP