51 Protestors Injured in Bangkok

By: AP
By: AP

BANGKOK, Thailand – Attackers set off explosions at anti-government protest sites Sunday, wounding 51 people and raising fears of widening confrontations in Thailand's worst political crisis in decades, which has strangled its economy and shut down its main airports.

Thousands of government supporters gathered, meanwhile, in the heart of Bangkok for a rally denouncing the protesters, further inflaming tensions.

The rally was designed to show support for Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, who has appeared helpless in ending the crisis that has stranded up to 100,000 travelers, brought the key tourism industry to a virtual standstill and affected plane schedules worldwide.

Somchai has been forced to run the government out of the northern city of Chiang Mai because of fears he could be arrested the military, whose allegiances are unclear.

Sunday's explosions hit the prime minister's compound, which protesters have held since August, an anti-government television station, and a road near the main entrance to Bangkok's domestic airport, which the protesters are also occupying. At least 51 people were injured, including four seriously, officials said.

No one claimed responsibility, but Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the protest group, blamed the government.

The protesters, who call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy, overran Suvarnabhumi airport, the country's main international gateway, last Tuesday. They seized the domestic airport a day later, severing the capital from all commercial air traffic and virtually paralyzing the government.

The alliance says it will not give up until Somchai resigns, accusing him of being a puppet of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the alliance's original target. Thaksin, who is Somchai's brother-in-law, was deposed in a 2006 military coup and has fled the country to escape corruption charges.

Thousands of government supporters wearing red shirts, headbands and bandanas joined Sunday's rally against the protest alliance. Some danced and clapped to music blaring from loudspeakers.

"This is a movement against anarchical force and the people behind it," said government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kua, who was to address the crowd.

"They want anarchy so that the army is forced to intervene and stage a coup," he told The Associated Press.

Somchai has appeared at a loss over how to end the crisis and has done little except to issue appeals and make offers of negotiations that have been rebuffed by the protesters.

Police have had their hands tied because of Somchai's reluctance to use force, and the military has refused to get involved, creating the worst political deadlock in the country's recent history.

In the wake of the Sunday explosions, senior protest leader Chamlong Srimuang met with Bangkok police chief Lt. Gen. Suchart Maunkaew. The two agreed to have police and protesters jointly patrol protest sites at the prime minister's office and Don Muang domestic airport. So far, six people have been killed in bomb attacks, clashes with police and street battles between government opponents and supports.

Suvarnabhumi airport director Serirat Prasutanont said his officials are also trying to negotiate with protesters to let various airlines retrieve 88 planes that have remained parked since Tuesday.

"We are begging them to let the empty planes take off" but without success, he said.

Some airlines were using an airport at the U-Tapao naval base, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Bangkok. But authorities there were overwhelmed with hundreds of screaming passengers cramming into the small facility, trying to get their bags scanned through a single X-ray machine.

"It was terrible! There was pushing and shouting and we couldn't get in the front door," said Veena Banerjee of India, trying for the second day to get on a plane.

Muslim pilgrims, who became stranded at the besieged international airport while on their way to the hajj, were bused Sunday to U-Tapao. An Iran Air flight will take them to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

"We are going to Mecca. There is only Allah," said Mohammad Rosi, one of the 459 pilgrims who arrived Tuesday in Bangkok from Thailand's Muslim-majority southern provinces.

Many Muslims save up for years to go on the pilgrimage, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most.

The Federation of Thai Industries has estimated the takeover of the airports is costing the country $57 million to $85 million a day. Some of its members have suggested they might not pay taxes to protest the standoff.

Some Thais are looking to the judiciary for a way out of the crisis. The Constitutional Court is expected to rule soon on whether three parties in the governing coalition including Somchai's People's Power Party committed electoral fraud.

If found guilty, the parties would be dissolved immediately, and executive members including Somchai would be barred from politics for five years.

Others are counting on the monarchy to end the standoff. Revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has repeatedly brought calm in times of turbulence during his 62-year reign, will give his annual birthday-eve speech on Dec. 4.

"No one else can fix this. The country is so divided. The only uniting figure we have is the king. If he tells both sides to step back, they will," said 36-year-old coffee shop owner Natta Siritanond.


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