Thailand’s army said on Sunday it would impose a curfew on parts of Bangkok after two days of intense clashes between soldiers and “Red Shirt” protesters left at least 24 dead and more than 200 wounded.
A top protest leader urged the revered king to intervene in the crisis, which has turned areas of the city into no-go zones as troops fire live ammunition at protesters, some of them armed or using slingshots and fireworks.
Sporadic gunfire continued to echo around the fringes of the Red Shirts’ sprawling encampment as a swathe of the city was shrouded in black smoke after demonstrators torched piles of tyres in roads. One shop was seen ablaze.
“There will be a curfew announcement in some necessary areas and roads in Bangkok so that police and soldiers can differentiate people from terrorists,” army spokesperson Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd told reporters.
The government said schools would stay closed Monday because of the unrest.
Watch our April slideshow for photographs and an audio summary of the Thailand protests. The capital has ground to a halt as red shirt protesters continue to demand the removal of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from power, protests which have led to outbreaks of violence.
A senior leader of the Red Shirted protesters called for the intervention of Thailand’s king, saying he was the “only hope” for an end to the two-month crisis, which has left more than 50 people dead and 1600 wounded.
“As people in this country, we would like his kindness,” Jatuporn Prompan told reporters at the rally site, where thousands of protesters were camped out.
“I believe Thais will feel the same, that His Majesty is our only hope.”
King Bhumibol Adulyadej chastised both the military and protest leaders during a 1992 uprising, effectively bringing the violence to an end.
But the 82-year-old monarch has been hospitalised since September and has avoided commenting directly on the current crisis in public.
All of the fatalities in recent days have been civilians.
The military on Saturday declared a “live fire zone” in one area where a foreign witness said he earlier saw troops fire towards a group of Red Shirts advancing with a Thai flag. Three bodies were later seen on the ground.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thai authorities were on a “slippery slope” towards serious human rights abuses by designating live fire zones.
“It’s a small step for soldiers to think ‘live fire zone’ means ‘free fire zone’, especially as violence escalates,” the group said.
On the fringes of the protesters’ vast encampment, smoke rose from two areas where troops and demonstrators clashed on Saturday, close to a diplomatic district and a night market that was popular with foreigners.
Flames rose from a bridge and intermittent explosions, likely firecrackers launched by the demonstrators, sounded around streets strewn with debris.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva vowed there would be no turning back on the government’s policy of sealing the protesters inside their fortified camp.
“Your rally has been used by terrorists. It’s not a rally for democracy,” he said in his regular Sunday television address.
The Reds have been seeking an end to Abhisit’s government, calling it elitist and undemocratic because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ruling ousted elected allies of their hero, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Protesters have turned a large area of Bangkok into a virtual state within a state, crippling a retail and hotel district and disrupting daily life for residents in the city of 12 million people.
Against a military armed with assault rifles, the protesters have fought back with homemade weapons including fireworks, rockets, slingshots, and burning tyres.
Handguns and grenades
An AFP photographer saw one demonstrator firing a handgun on Saturday.
Numerous grenades have been fired in recent days and weeks, many at military or government targets, authorities say.
Abhisit last week shelved a plan to hold early elections — which the Red Shirts initially agreed to — because the protesters refused to disperse.
The army warned it would move against the demonstrators’ main rally site unless they disperse, but it gave no timetable for the action.
A military operation on April 10 to clear an area of the city of protesters left 25 people dead and more than 800 injured.
The violence prompted the United States warned against all travel to Bangkok and authorised the evacuation of non-essential embassy staff and families.
Thailand has been riven by years of political turmoil since Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006.
Thai society is deeply divided between the urban elite and rural poor, with most of the Red Shirts from the north and impoverished northeast.– AFp