A rogue general leading a armed wing of Thai anti-government protesters was shot in the head and critically wounded on Thursday as armed troops blockaded a site where thousands are encamped in Bangkok.
Khattiya Sawasdipol, a suspended army specialist in charge of security at the encampment occupied by thousands of demonstrators, was rushed to an intensive care ward, the state Narenthorn Emergency Medical Service said, adding that at least four other people were wounded in the same area.
Khattiya, better known as "Seh Daeng" (Commander Red), was dubbed a "terrorist" by Thailand's government.
After the shooting, troops skirmished with rock-throwing protesters at several points around the periphery of the "red shirt" sit-in site in a shopping district of the capital.
One demonstrator was shot in the head and killed. At least nine people were wounded, the state Erawan Medical Centre said.
Several Thai and foreign reporters said Khattiya was shot while being interviewed by them.
"It's a clear attempt to decapitate the red shirt military leadership," said Anthony Davis, a security consultant with IHS-Jane's.
"It's a smart tactical move that will cause confusion in the red shirts' military ranks and send a message to the leadership that if they don't want to negotiate and come out, they can expect extreme consequences."
The latest bout of violence came after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva cancelled a proposed Nov. 14 election under his "national reconciliation" plan and called off talks with the red-shirted protesters after they raised new demands.
Khattiya's shooting and the cordon around the encampment marks the start of a violent crackdown on the red shirts in Thailand, the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy said.
The government stands a good chance of clearing the streets. "But it will not end the polarisation that has led to the current instability -- ensuring that the pressure from the red shirts will persist and that political volatility will remain a persistent problem for Thailand for the forseeable future".
The Cabinet on Thursday approved a state of emergency in 17 northern and northeastern provinces, which are red shirt strongholds, to prevent potential unrest.
National reconciliation plan
Abhisit is under enormous pressure to end the violent political crisis that has killed at least 29 people, wounded more than 1,400, paralysed parts of the capital and slowed growth in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.
The 22-member red shirt leadership council has struggled to find common ground on how to end the protests and appeared in disarray on Thursday night. Its chairman and several others have not been seen in days.
Former Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, chairman of the the protesters' parliamentary wing, the Puea Thai Party, called on the demonstrators to leave the shopping district.
Some hardliners like Khattiya have advocated stepping up the protests to win the fight once and for all. Many face criminal charges for defying an emergency decree and some, like Khattiya, face terrorism charges carrying a maximum penalty of death.
The military said it was planning a lockdown around the encampment of the red shirts, mostly supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup.
The mostly rural and urban poor protesters have refused to leave the site. An estimated 10,000-20,000 people occupy the encampment, their numbers varying during the day.
"We will send out groups to surround these (army) vehicles to prevent them from advancing," Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, said after the army announced its lockdown measures.
Companies and embassies across the area told employees to leave work early and activated back-up plans for Friday. Public transport was being diverted from the area.
Protest leaders pleaded over their radio station for people to come and reinforce the encampment and threatened to lay siege to Abhisit's house and an infantry barracks where he has taken refuge if there was a crackdown.
But a source close to army chief Anupong Paochinda said an immediate crackdown to disperse the protesters was unlikely.
Consumer confidence falls
The crisis is shattering consumer confidence, a survey showed, suggesting spending is drying up, a troubling sign for a sector that accounts for half the economy.
The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said its consumer confidence index fell by a record 2.6 points in April, the lowest since July 2009. Confidence has fallen for three straight months after rising steadily since the middle of 2009.
The Thai baht fell after the army's announcement. Stocks fell one percent, while other Asian markets were up nearly 3 percent.
Foreign investors have sold $584 million in Thai shares in the past six sessions, cutting their net buying so far this year to $607.6 million as of Wednesday.
"The markets have no idea what to make of the situation," said Sukit Udomsirikul, an analyst at Siam City Securities.
ReutersLast Mod: 14 Mayıs 2010, 08:39