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29 Nov 2008 07:13
Hundreds of anti-government protesters forced several dozen Thai riot police to abandon a checkpoint on Saturday as they tightened their siege of the country’s main airport, witnesses said.
About 2 000 People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) supporters forced back about 150 police from a kilometre (0.6 mile) north of Suvarnabhumi Airport, although the incident passed off without violence.
The protesters are seeking to oust Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat in the latest escalation in a long-running political crisis.
A day after their police chief was sacked for mishandling the protests, commanders on the ground said they would not yet try to evict by force the thousands of protesters at Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports.
But PAD supporters were taking no chances and on Saturday deflated the tyres of ambulances and police vehicles at the police checkpoint. Several vehicles were left stranded in the middle of the road.
The PAD say they are ready for a prolonged siege, with their “security guards” armed with clubs, sticks and golf clubs, and dug in behind a series of barricades of fire trucks, razor wire, car tyres and luggage trolleys.
PAD co-leader and retired general Chamlong Srimuang told supporters on Saturday not to go to Suvarnabhumi as there were enough people there and instead go to Government House, where the protests started months ago.
“Too many people will not help if police shut us there.
Chamlong said PAD leaders had not yet held any talks with authorities.
“We are still open to talks but only with people directly involved in the situation such as Somchai,” he told a news conference.
“They can talk with any of our leaders and wherever, but nobody contacts us yet.
He also offered some hope of a way out, without giving details.
“We believe the situation will not be prolonged as we always think of the important day. But we believe it will be eased before December 5,” he told a news conference, referring to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday.
In a televised address on Thursday night, Prime Minister Somchai said the PAD members barricaded at the airports were doing massive damage to the economy, but he would avoid violence to end the protests.
“Don’t worry. Officials will use gentle measures to deal with them,” Somchai said, inviting rights groups and journalists to monitor the imposition of emergency rule at the two airports.
Somchai took a tougher line with his police chief, demoting General Patcharawat Wongsuwan to an inactive post on Friday.
While no official reason was given, local newspapers made no bones about it on Saturday and said he had been sacked for refusing to send riot police in to end the protest.
The airport sit-ins have forced hundreds of flights to be cancelled, stranded thousands of foreign tourists and grounded millions of dollars of air cargo.
Thailand’s three-year-old political crisis has deepened dramatically since the unelected PAD began a “final battle” on Monday to unseat Somchai, whom they accuse of being a pawn of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, his brother-in-law.
Pressure is building on the army to oust the prime minister, as they did Thaksin in 2006, after Somchai rejected military calls to quit this week.
But army chief Anupong Paochinda has said he would not take over, arguing the military cannot heal fundamental political rifts between the Bangkok elite and middle classes, who despise Thaksin, and the poor rural and urban majority who love him.
A prolonged closure of Suvarnabhumi, which can handle three million tonnes of cargo a year, would do serious damage to an export-driven economy already struggling to cope with a global slowdown, experts say.
The government began shuttling thousands of stranded tourists by bus to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 150km east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines, but travellers reported delays and confusion. - Reuters
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