Thai protesters release army train, opposite groups may face

Thailand's tense political standoff was nearing a climax with anti-government protesters preparing for imminent battle in central Bangkok against tens of thousands of armed troops.

Thai protesters release army train, opposite groups may face

Thailand's tense political standoff was nearing a climax on Thursday with anti-government protesters preparing for imminent battle in central Bangkok against tens of thousands of armed troops.

The "red shirt" uprising showed the first signs of spreading beyond Bangkok to the protesters' stronghold in the northeast after they blocked a train carrying troops and military vehicles.

In the province of Khon Kaen, about 400 km from Bangkok, red shirts agreed on Thursday to let the military train proceed -- if it takes along 10 of them to make sure the train goes to its intended destination in southern Thailand.

"Deadline"

Tens of thousands of red-shirted supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have fortified their redoubt in a Bangkok commercial district with home-made barricades, expecting the army to evict them any time.

"We've heard from insiders in the government that April 26 is their deadline," Kwanchai Sarakam, 57, a red shirt leader from the northeast told Reuters.

Neither side shows any sign of backing down after the army's chaotic attempt to evict protesters from another site on April 10 that led to the deaths of 25 people and wounded more than 800.

Red shirt leaders say another such attempt would be futile. They say they will only leave Bangkok when the prime minister announces a dissolution of parliament and early elections.

"I'm sending a signal (by remaining at the site and fortifying it) that I want to see their cards," said Nattawut Saikuar, one of the three top red shirt leaders, on Wednesday. "You cannot issue an order because the soldiers won't listen," he added, citing last Friday's bungled attempt to arrest red shirt leaders as an example.

"Opposing groups"

Any attempt to disperse the protesters risks heavy casualties and the prospect of clashes spilling into nearby high-end residential areas. It may also lead the red shirts to step up action elsewhere in the country, particularly in their strongholds in the north and northeast where there has been little unrest so far in the six-week campaign.

Thai media reported that a "multi-coloured" pro-government group planned a demonstration of up to 100,000 people on Friday demanding a dispersal of the red shirts, splitting the capital into opposing groups.

This groups includes office workers, shopkeepers, the middle class and members of the pro-government "yellow shirts' who staged their own parlysing protests in Bangkok two years ago to force the ouster of a Thaksin-allied government.

About 200 red shirt protesters rallied in front of the regional headquarters of the United Nations in Bangkok on Thursday requesting peacekeepers be deployed to provide security. Police made no move to stop them.

Some red shirt leaders suggested on Wednesday they might consider a three-month timeframe for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and call elections.

But the movement is led by a 22-member committee that often sends mixed signals on its positions. They all agree, however, a crackdown is imminent and they are preparing for battle.

"Fully armed troops"

The army spokesman said around 900 fully armed troops on motorcycles would be deployed around the red shirt rally site at the Rachaprasong intersection to keep them going elsewhere, and checkpoints have been strengthened in Bangkok to stop red shirt reinforcements from coming into the capital.

The red shirts have fortified entrances to their rally site in an upmarket shopping district with barricades made of tyres, chunks of concrete and bamboo staves, forcing posh malls and some luxury hotels to close their doors.

At one end of their sprawling encampment, leading to the Silom business district, anti-government protesters atop their barricade faced off against several hundred "multi-coloured" demonstrators on Wednesday night throwing bottles and rocks before riot police got between them.

About 60,000 troops have been deployed in the capital and can use live ammunition if necessary for self-defence, the Bangkok Post newspaper quoted security officials as saying.

Talks between Abhisit and the protesters collapsed last month when the red shirts rejected his offer to dissolve parliament within nine months -- a year early.

The demonstrations have evolved into a dangerous standoff between the army and a rogue military faction that supports the protesters and includes retired generals allied with twice-elected and now fugitive former premier Thaksin.


Agencies

Last Mod: 22 Nisan 2010, 16:51
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