Bangkok clashes death toll climbs to 20

At least
20 people are now known to have died in clashes between Thai troops and
opposition supporters in Bangkok, and more than 800 were hurt.

The worst
violence came when soldiers and police made an unsuccessful attempt to retake
an area held by opposition supporters on Saturday evening.

They fired
tear gas and rubber bullets while protesters hurled petrol bombs, in the
deadliest violence in 18 years.

A
government spokesman denied reports that live rounds had also been fired.

“There
were no live bullets fired at protesters,” Panitan Wattanayagorn said on
national TV, AFP agency reported.

At least
four soldiers were among the dead on Saturday.

Hundreds
of red-shirted opposition supporters also reportedly forced their way into government
offices in the northern cities of Chiang Mai and Udon Thani in protest at the
crackdown in the Thai capital.

Both the
security services and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government had
promised to show restraint in dealing with the demonstrators in order to avoid
a repeat of last year’s riots, when two protesters were killed.

But the
BBC’s Quentin Sommerville in Bangkok says the deaths of so many more in
Saturday’s clashes can only mean greater political uncertainty for the country.

Reports
from Bangkok on Sunday morning said the city of 15 million appeared to be calm
as an unofficial truce took hold.

The
protesters, who want the government to call new elections, have been camped out
in parts of the city for a month.

Hundreds
of soldiers and riot police advanced after nightfall on one of the red-shirt
camps, near Phan Fah bridge and Ratchadamnoen road, close to several government
buildings and a UN office.

Local
media say both sides fired weapons and detonated explosive devices in the
clashes which ensued. Television footage showed chaotic scenes, with clouds of
tear gas enveloping the streets.

Paul, a
British teacher who lives in Thailand, told the BBC he had been in a crowd of
protesters across the road from the Khao San intersection when he saw a man of
about 50 being shot in the chest as he waved a flag from a pick-up truck.

“The
army were firing live rounds on civilians,” he said. “I wouldn’t have
believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”

Shortly
before midnight, Prime Minister Vejjajiva went on national television to say
troops had halted their operation and express his “regret” to
families of victims.

Soldiers,
he insisted, would only have fired live rounds “into the air and in
self-defence”.

“The government
and I are still responsible for easing the situation and trying to bring peace
and order to the country,” he added.

Earlier
confrontations left several people with gunshot wounds

An army
spokesman, Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd, accused some protesters of using live
bullets and grenades.

Red-shirt
leader Jatuporn Prompan called on King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene after
Saturday’s violence, saying it was the “way to prevent further
deaths”.

The
red-shirts – a loose coalition of left-wing activists and supporters of exiled
former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – want Mr Abhisit to dissolve
parliament and call an election.

They say
Mr Abhisit came to power illegitimately in a parliamentary vote after a
pro-Thaksin government was forced to step down in 2008. Mr Thaksin was ousted
in a military coup in 2006.

They have
vowed to defy the state of emergency declared on Wednesday with more rallies.
Arrest warrants have been issued for several of the protest leaders.

Washington
has urged both sides to show restraint.

“We
deplore this outbreak of political violence in Thailand, our long-term friend
and ally, and urge good faith negotiations by the parties to resolve
outstanding issues through peaceful means,” White House spokesman Mike Hammer
said.

Editorials
in Bangkok newspapers on Sunday also called for urgent talks between the government
and the red-shirts to end the violence.

The Nation
daily newspaper called the violence “our darkest hour”.

“Yesterday’s
bloodbath is a wake-up call to halt the slide towards anarchy,” it said in
a front-page commentary.

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