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Thai protesters on defensive after storming hospital

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai anti-government protesters were apologetic on Friday a day after a clumsy storming of a hospital that raised questions over whether the movement is losing direction in a two-month crisis that has killed 27 people.

A soldier uses binoculars near Silom business district in Bangkok April 29, 2010. Thai authorities said on Thursday they would intensify efforts to contain anti-government protests in Bangkok, a day after a soldier was killed in the latest clash of a campaign to force early elections. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Protest leaders apologised after more than 200 “red shirts” forced their way into Chulalongkorn University Hospital late on Thursday to look for soldiers they accused of preparing an attack, forcing the hospital to evacuate some patients.

They didn’t find any and left after roaming for an hour through the grounds, the lobby and car parks, some carrying wooden staves.

“We truly apologise. That should not have happened and we don’t approve of it,” said Weng Tojirakarn, a protest leader.

Weng acknowledged some red shirts have a “cowboy attitude” that presents an image problem for the movement, which is already struggling to get support from middle-class Bangkok.

Protesters later cleared part of the road in front of the hospital to allow access for ambulances and patients, and were erecting a new barricade of tyres and bamboo poles on the other side of the road. They were also using bales of razor wire, which up until now was what security forces have used as barriers. It was the second setback in a week for thousands of mostly rural and urban poor supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra after security forces on Wednesday stopped an attempt to hold “mobile rallies” outside their 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) fortified encampment in Bangkok’s shopping district.

The encampment, which forced the closure of several upscale department stores and hotels, has become a tented city within a city, deepening a crisis that Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said could reduce Thailand’s economic growth rate by two percentage points if it continues all year.

The Stock Exchange of Thailand expressed confidence in the economy -- Southeast Asia’s second largest -- but acknowledged foreign investors have turned cautious, selling $264 million in stocks over the past six trading days. That’s driving the baht currency to its largest weekly loss since January.

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The hospital incursion raised concerns about how much control the leaders have over their followers, who range from pro-Thaksin loyalists to democracy activists and farm labourers -- and whether its leaders can maintain discipline over its guards.

It also risks hurting the movement’s public legitimacy, which Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was quick to sense. “I don’t think I need to condemn this. I think not just Thai society, but also the international community already is,” he said in a televised statement.

The government would not allow “intimidation of the public and will act according to necessity to prevent that,” he said.

The red shirts have ignored such warnings since starting their protest seven weeks ago, storming parliament, blocking roads, setting up camps in the heart of the city. Clashes with security forces have killed 27 people and injured nearly 1,000.

The hospital is near the Silom business district, scene of a deadly grenade attack on April 22. Hospital director Adisorn Patradul said nearly all patients would be evacuated and only its emergency room would stay open.

Hospital management denies troops are on its site, but thousands of soldiers and riot police are stationed in Bangkok with some visibly deployed in the peripheries of the encampment.

“I admit we should not have gone in but no one was hurt and people blow it out of proportion to malign us,” said Nit Srichan, a 45-year-old farmer from Khon Kaen province, who worked with other red shirts to move back a barricade outside the hospital.

Tension remains high in Bangkok after a soldier was killed on Wednesday in a clash on a suburban highway packed with vehicles.

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The violence is taking its toll on tourism, which employs 15 percent of the workforce. Arrivals at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport have fallen by a third since the violence broke out.

Kim Eng Securities, Thailand’s top brokerage, warned that investors may still be underestimating the impact unrest is having on economic growth. “With 60 percent of GDP growth hinging on consumption, there is downside risk,” it said.

The government has accused the red shirts of having a republican agenda, a provocative claim in a country where the king is regarded as almost divine. The red shirts deny that.

The royalist “yellow shirts,” who besieged Bangkok’s airports for a week in 2008 in a campaign to topple a pro-thaksin government, have re-emerged to demand military action to disperse the red shirts.

Hopes of a deal to end the violence faded last weekend after Oxford-educated Abhisit rejected a red shirt proposal for an election in three months, saying he would not talk under threats.

Analysts say negotiations are likely taking place behind the scene even as both sides publicly snub each other’s offer.

“This could grind on for some time, with both sides testing each other’s will and reaction. Both want to drag it out, thinking they still have a high chance of winning,” said Karn Yuenyong, director of a think tank Siam Intelligence Unit.

The red shirts oppose what they say is the unelected royalist elite that controls Thailand and broadly back Thaksin, who was toppled in a coup in 2006 but before that built up a following among the poor through rural development and welfare policies.

The former telecoms tycoon was convicted in absentia on corruption-related charges and lives abroad to avoid jail.

Additional reporting by the Bangkok bureau; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Bill Tarrant