BANGKOK—Thai troops fired bullets and tear gas at anti-government protesters rioting near the U.S. and Japanese embassies Friday as an army push to clear the streets sparked clashes that have killed two and turned central Bangkok into a virtual war zone.
Periodic bursts of gunfire, coming from soldiers and apparently from inside the Red Shirt protesters’ camp, echoed around eerily empty streets and high-rises in the central business district. Violence since late Thursday has also wounded at least 20 others, including two Thai journalists and a Canadian reporter, who was in a serious condition.
With security deteriorating and hopes of a peaceful resolution to the two-month standoff fading, the unrest plunged Thailand deeper into political uncertainty, threatening the country’s stability, economy and already-decimated tourism industry.
Violence escalated after a rogue army general regarded as a military adviser to the Red Shirt protesters was shot in the head on Thursday evening, possibly by a sniper, leaving him in critical condition.
Friday’s violence was initially centred on a small area home to several foreign embassies, but by midafternoon had spread around the 3-square-kilometre protest zone barricaded with bamboo stakes and tires.
Soldiers crouched behind a raised road divider in one area and fired rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas shells. Army vehicles were seen speeding on deserted streets littered with stones and debris. Protesters retreated and hurled rocks and insults.
Fighting has now killed 31 people and injured hundreds since the Red Shirts, mostly rural poor, began camping in the capital on March 12, in a bid to force out Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They claim his coalition government came to power illegitimately through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, which in 2006 forced the populist premier favoured by the Red Shirts, Thaksin Shinawatra, from office in a coup.
The latest death came Friday, when a 33-year-old man died of a gunshot wound linked to the protests, said Suwinai Busarakamwong, a doctor at Kluay Namthai Hospital.
A Thai cameraman from the VoiceTV news website was shot in his left thigh and a photographer for Matichon newspaper was shot in the leg, the news outlets said.
Canadian journalist Nelson Rand was hit by three bullets and was in a “very serious” condition, France 24 news channel correspondent Cyril Payen reported. One bullet perforated his leg, another hit his abdomen, another hit his wrist. Payen said Rand lost a lot of blood and was undergoing an operation that would take several hours.
Last week, Abhisit offered November elections, raising hopes that a compromise could be reached with the Red Shirts, who have been demanding immediate elections. Those hopes were dashed after Red Shirt leaders made more demands.
Late Thursday, the army moved to seal off the Red Shirt encampment in an upscale commercial district of the capital. Some 10,000 protesters, women and children among them, have crammed into the area.
“We are being surrounded. We are being crushed. The soldiers are closing in on us. This is not a civil war yet, but it’s very, very cruel,” Weng Tojirakarn, a protest leader, told The Associated Press.
On Friday morning, protesters captured and vandalized two military water cannon trucks at a key intersection in the business district, just outside the Red Shirt encampment, which is fortified with bamboo stakes and tires. They ripped the cannon from its moorings and used its plastic barrel to shoot firecrackers from behind a sandbag bunker they had commandeered from soldiers.
They later set fire to tires and a police bus that sent thick plumes of smoke into the sky. Soldiers fired automatic rifles repeatedly.
The worst violence was concentrated on a small area around the Red Shirt encampment, close to the American and Japanese embassies, which were closed to the public. The British, New Zealand and the Dutch embassies, which are in the vicinity, also were shut.
Soldiers used a loudspeaker to send a message to the Red Shirts: “We are the people’s army. We are just doing our duty for the nation. Brothers and sisters, let’s talk together.”
But a group of aggressive young protesters approached them on motorcycles and on foot, shouting obscenities. Two soldiers fired shotguns into the air and they pulled back but kept up their abuse.
Major roads around the protest site were closed to traffic, and the city’s subway and elevated train shut early. Many shops in the capital also were shuttered.
Tensions escalated Thursday evening after renegade army Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, who is accused of creating a paramilitary force for the Red Shirts, was shot in the head while talking to reporters just inside the perimeter of the protesters’ encampment.
He was taken to a hospital in a coma and was in critical condition. Hospital director Dr. Chaiwan Charoenchokthawee said Khattiya “could die at any moment.”
It was not known who shot Khattiya, better known by the nickname Seh Daeng. But the Red Shirts blamed a government sniper.
“This is illegal use of force ordered by Abhisit Vejjajiva,” said Arisman Pongruengrong, a Red Shirt leader. “Seh Daeng was shot by a government sniper. This is clearly a use of war weapons on the people.”
The army denied it tried to kill Khattiya.
“It has nothing to do with the military. It has never been our policy (to assassinate). We have been avoiding violence,” said Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, an army spokesman. Only a forensic investigation will determine who was behind the shooting, he said.
The two-day clashes marked the worst continuous episode of violence since April 10, when 25 people were killed and more than 800 injured in clashes between Red Shirts and troops in Bangkok’s historic area. Four more people were killed in subsequent clashes.
The Red Shirts see Abhisit’s government as serving an elite insensitive to the plight of most Thais. The protesters include many supporters of former prime minister Thaksin whose allies won elections in 2007 after his ouster. Two subsequent pro-Thaksin governments were disbanded by court rulings before Abhisit was elected by Parliament.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire who fled overseas to avoid a corruption conviction, has publicly encouraged the protests and is widely believed to be helping bankroll them. He claims to be a victim of political persecution.