Thai grenade attack stokes tension ahead of rally

A grenade blast wounded more than 50 anti-government protesters in Bangkok on Sunday, fuelling fears of clashes ahead of a big rally in the Thai capital planned by government supporters.

The blast occurred around midnight at Government House, the prime minister’s office occupied by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) since August in a bid to topple the government.

PAD supporters are also dug in at the capital’s two main airports, stranding thousands of tourists, grounding exports and threatening to further slash economic growth.

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat has declared a state of emergency at the airports and given police the authority to remove the protesters. But PAD supporters attacked police on Saturday night, forcing them further away from the main Suvarnabhumi international airport.

A Reuters reporter said no police were visible around the airport on Sunday.

The sit-ins at Suvarnabhumi and the city’s domestic hub Don Muang are the latest escalation in the PAD’s “final battle” to unseat a prime minister it accuses of being a front for former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, who is Somchai’s brother-in-law, was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and lives in exile.

He still has strong support among the urban and rural poor, and the pro-Thaksin Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) says it will bring 100 000 supporters to central Bangkok on Sunday afternoon in a show of support for the government.

Veera Musikapong, a DAAD leader, told the Nation newspaper one focus of the rally would be the alleged bias of the courts.

The Constitutional Court has moved with uncharacteristic speed to conclude a vote fraud case on Tuesday that is widely expected to lead to the disbanding of Somchai’s People Power Party (PPP) and two other partners in the ruling coalition.

“It is obvious that there is interference with justice. It was well planned, and this is a concealed coup,” Veera said.

If the court dissolves the three parties, Somchai and other top leaders would be barred from politics and many cabinet ministers would have to step down.

Bloody attack
Saturday night’s grenade blast was the latest aimed at the PAD supporters at Government House and was among the most bloody.

A PAD spokesperson said 51 people were wounded, with four in a critical condition.

“I had come down from the stage about 30 minutes before the grenade dropped into a crowded area,” PAD leader Suriyasai Katasila told Channel 3 TV, blaming government supporters.

The chaos caused by the airport sit-ins has sparked rumours of a military coup, even though the army chief has said he will not seize control.
Somchai has rejected military calls to hold a snap election.

Police commanders on the ground said they are under orders not to retaliate against the protesters.

On Saturday night, about 150 riot police fled a checkpoint near Suvarnabhumi after they were attacked by PAD militants armed with iron rods, slingshots and hurling firecrackers.

It lasted 15 seconds but left the five-lane highway, the main access route to the $4-billion airport, littered with broken glass and discarded police helmets and truncheons.

Earlier, about 2 000 PAD members forced riot police to abandon another checkpoint near the airport.

“If they come, we’ll not open the door. If they shoot us, we’ll shoot them back. We’ll die if that makes the country better,” PAD leader Sondhi Limthongul told supporters, the most explicit admission yet by the movement that they are armed.

The airport closures have crippled the tourism industry during the peak end-of-year season.

Deputy Prime Minister Olarn Chaipravat said the damage to Thailand’s image may cut arrivals by half to six to seven million in 2009, and threaten a million jobs.

The government is shuttling tourists to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 150km east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines, but travellers have complained of massive delays and confusion.

Olarn said it could take a month to fly tourists home. - Reuters

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