Thai troops clash with red shirts, many wounded - UPDATE 2

Thai troops fired live rounds in the air in a chaotic clash with anti-government protesters that wounded 10 people and possibly killed one.

Thai troops clash with red shirts, many wounded - UPDATE 2

Thai troops fired live rounds in the air and shot rubber bullets in a chaotic clash with anti-government protesters on a highway in Bangkok's suburbs on Wednesday that wounded at least 16 people and possibly killed one soldier.

Troops and riot police tried to stop a convoy of up to 2,000 "red shirt" protesters on pickup trucks and motorcycles who had left central Bangkok in defiance of a state of emergency.

About 100 protesters had moved ahead of the main convoy, charging the troops and riot police, who used batons and shields to push them back. Some red shirts fought back by hurling stones and shooting metal balls from sling-shots, witnesses said.

Three rounds of clashed only stopped when a powerful tropical rainstorm moved over the traffic-choked area about 40 km (25 miles) from central Bangkok on Vipawadee-Rangsit road.

A Reuters photographer said a soldier was shot through his helmet and believed dead.

The photographer, who witnessed the shooting, said the soldier and at least five others were on motorbikes heading towards a cordon of police and troops behind shields when gunfire erupted. It was not immediately clear who shot him.

The state-run Erawan Medical Centre said at least 18 people were wounded, but gave no further details. It said it could not immediately confirm that a soldier had been killed.

Some vehicles in the main convoy have left the site, but some protesters are still scattered throughout the area and troops remain massed along the highway.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattayagorn told Reuters security forces were still trying to take control of the highway "to return it the public."

"Convoy"

The protesters, honking horns and singing, began the day in high spirits, heading for a market 50 km (30 miles) away, leaving thousands of others back at their fortified encampment in central Bangkok, which they have occupied since April 3.

"Red Shirts agreed to send an operation unit to carry out activities outside the rally site in peace and non-violence," protest leader Nattawut Saikuar told reporters.

He said the Reds, who are campaigning for immediate elections to oust the government, would go to an area where armed troops dispersed and arrested Reds on Monday for attempting to block security forces bound for the capital.

"We will offer moral support to the residents," Nattawut said. "We will go to meet and talk to people along the route."

The red shirts set out gas cooking canisters along their three-metre (10 ft) high barricade on the edge of the Silom business district overnight, a Reuters reporter said. The medieval-like barriers have been doused with fuel so they can be turned into a wall of fire should security forces try an assault.

"Army warning"


Troop movements were reported in central areas of Bangkok late on Tuesday and army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said some were "training" for an eventual dispersal of the protesters.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuangsuban said the security forces would stop protesters moving around in defiance of a state of emergency. "It is clear the protesters are not gathering peacefully. We will not be lenient with these people any more."

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has rejected an offer by the Reds to disperse if elections are held in three months' time.

Many in the army, which led a failed operation against a red-shirt rally on April 10 when 25 people were killed and 800 wounded, do not want to be dragged into battle with civilians.

Adding to the volatile mix, groups opposed to the red shirts -- and the loss to business and livelihoods the protests have caused in Bangkok -- have held rallies in the capital and want to see the red shirt encampment broken up.

The red shirts back ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, and say Abhisit came to power illegitimately with tacit military backing.

Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon revered by the poor and reviled by Bangkok's elite, was convicted in absentia on corruption-related charges and lives abroad to avoid jail.

Analysts say the deadlock and a possible deterioration in law and order could continue for weeks, damaging the economy, with consumer confidence flagging and the tourist industry suffering, especially in the capital.

If the protests drag on for three months, it could shave 0.64 percentage point off Thailand's 2010 economic growth forecast of 4.5 percent, the government has said.


Agencies

Last Mod: 28 Nisan 2010, 14:45
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