Thai authorities, protesters clash; one soldier dead, 18 injured

A soldier has died and 18 other people have been wounded during a clash between government forces and protesters in Thailand. It is the 27th fatality in recent political violence that has divided the country.

Updated: Apr 28, 2010, 18:15 PM IST

Bangkok: A soldier has died and 18 other people have been wounded during a clash between government forces and protesters in Thailand. It is the 27th fatality in recent political violence that has divided the country.

The government`s Erawan emergency center said the violence occurred Wednesday as troops tried to block protesters from advancing along a highway just north of Bangkok.

Witnesses said the soldier appeared to have been shot by other security forces during a chaotic confrontation.

Earlier Thai security forces and anti-government protesters clashed Wednesday on the outskirts of Bangkok, with troops firing both over and directly into a crowd of Red Shirts to keep them from expanding their demonstrations. At least 10 protesters and one soldier were wounded.

It was not immediately clear if the troops were shooting live ammunition or rubber bullets in the confrontation along a major road connecting Bangkok with its northern suburbs that security forces had blocked with razor wire.

The Red Shirts, who have paralyzed parts of the capital with protests for weeks in their campaign to bring down a government they view as illegitimate, had announced that they were widening their demonstrations and dared the military to stop them as hundreds headed on motorbikes and pickup trucks to a planned rally in a suburb of the capital.

Along Vibhavadi-Rangsit road, riot squads fired into the air to push protesters back but several tried to remove the razor wire, prompting troops to level their rifles and shoot directly at protesters who fled into oncoming traffic. Police huddled behind riot shields, while soldiers wielding rifles took up positions behind concrete pylons.

The confrontation was chaotic and at one point security forces fired on a group of troops riding toward them on motorbikes in what appeared to be an accident, although some members of the security forces have been accused of siding with the protesters. At least four motorbikes crashed and one soldier was carried away on a stretcher, bleeding profusely from the head. Several others from the group threw their hands in the air.

At least 10 protesters wounded in the clash were treated for minor injuries at the nearby Bhumibol Adulyadej Hospital, the hospital said.

The confrontation ended Wednesday evening and the protesters headed back to their enclave.

But the shooting raised concerns that more violence was to come after government warnings that patience was running out in the seven-week standoff.

Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said that troops were told to use rubber bullets but had authority to use live ammunition for self-defense.

"We brought force out to stop them. At this point, society finds it unacceptable to have protesters traveling in a motorcade like this," Sansern said. "We try our best to prevent losses."

The demonstration appeared intended to provoke the government, which has repeatedly said it will not tolerate protests beyond the Red Shirts` enclave in the city. It was the first confrontation since five grenades were fired near a gathering of counter-protesters Thursday, killing one person.

At least 26 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded since protesters began occupying parts of Bangkok in mid-March, barricading major roads with tires and bamboo sticks and forcing the closure of some of the city`s ritziest malls and hotels.

The Red Shirts, who are demanding the dissolution of Parliament, said they were sending a team of activists to drum up support at an outdoor market north of the capital. They have set up barricades on roads leading to the capital in recent days to prevent police reinforcements from being sent to assist in a possible crackdown.

"We are going to send (protesters) out of the rally site," a Red Shirt leader, Nattawut Saikua, said. "If the military thinks it is necessary to use force to block us, it`s all right. ... We are not afraid."

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has repeatedly said he hopes to resolve the conflict peacefully but has yet to outline a clear plan out of the crisis after calling off negotiations with the protesters, who are drawn mostly from poor, rural provinces and see the premier as a symbol of an elite impervious to their plight.

"We recognize that as every day passes by, the people of Thailand suffer, the country suffers, but we want to make sure that there is rule of law," Abhisit told CNN. "We will try to enforce the law with minimum losses and we will try to find a political resolution, but it takes time, patience and cooperation."

His government has been criticized for excessive leniency and standing aside as protesters set up their base in the heart of Bangkok, occupying more than 1 square mile (3 square kilometers).

The government also has accused the protesters of trying to undermine the monarchy and the nation`s revered king. Such a charge, which protest leaders strongly deny, could weaken their support.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said the government was investigating opposition politicians, academics and media it believes are involved in an anti-monarchy movement, the newspaper Matichon reported. Thailand`s lese majeste law mandates a jail term of up to 15 years for anyone who "defames, insults, or threatens" the royal family.

The Red Shirts` ranks are largely drawn from supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 on corruption allegations. The group believes that Abhisit`s government — backed by the urban elite — is illegitimate, having been helped into power by the country`s powerful military.

Bureau report