Thai troops fire into air to halt protest convoy

Thai troops fired rubber bullets at anti-government protesters on Wednesday and shot rounds in the air to halt a convoy of demonstrators who took an increasingly violent bid for elections to Bangkok’s suburbs.

About 450 soldiers and riot police set up a checkpoint on a highway in Bangkok’s northern suburbs, some firing into the air with automatic weapons and shotguns in an attempt to stop about 1000 “red shirt” protesters on pickup trucks and on motorcycles.

Dozens of protesters had moved ahead of the main convoy, charging the troops and riot police, who used batons and shields to push them back, according to a Reuters witness.

The main convey with hundreds of protesters was about 8km behind the scene of the clash, the latest violence in a seven-week crisis that has killed 26 people, paralyzed Bangkok and squeezed Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

The protesters, honking horns and singing on the back of their pick-up trucks and motorcycles, left their fortified base by a road near the business district on Wednesday morning, heading for a market 50km away.

Riot police and troops did not try to stop them initially and thousands remained at their encampment in a ritzy shopping district in central Bangkok they have occupied since 3 April.

The mostly rural and urban poor red shirts inflicted traffic chaos in Bangkok on Tuesday by stacking tires on the elevated platform of a commuter train station by their protest site, worried troops would use Bangkok’s Skytrain to attack them.

The red shirts set out gas cooking canisters along their three-meter 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.

Troop movements

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.

Hopes for a negotiated end to the crisis were dashed over the weekend when Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected a proposal by the protesters for an election in three months.

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.”

Many in the army, which led a failed operation against a red-shirt rally on 10 April 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.

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