BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai troops and rioting anti-government demonstrators clashed again early on Saturday, intensifying a violent political conflict and turning Bangkok’s commercial district into a bloody battlefield.
Troops battled during the night with protesters who hurled rocks and petrol bombs on roads surrounding an area of luxury hotels and shopping malls they have occupied for nearly six weeks, witnesses said.
The violence, which erupted on Thursday, left the city of 15 million tense, with gunfire and loud blasts heard on major roads where protesters faced off with the army as it battled to establish a perimeter around the sprawling encampment.
The turbulence adds to a five-year crisis that pits a royalist urban elite who back Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva against rural and urban poor, many of which have adopted red as a protest colour, who say they are disenfranchised.
The “red shirts” broadly support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup.
A journalist among a group of demonstrators north of the site said violence had intensified during the night. Multiple blasts and gunshots were heard, followed by loud cheers from the protesters, who refused to disperse.
Thai television showed footage of injured protesters being loaded into ambulances after street battles with soldiers that appeared to be spreading towards a major intersection.
The military said some people among the protesters fired handguns and grenades on Friday, causing chaos.
Five-year Thai credit default swaps, used to hedge against debt default, widened by more than 30 basis points — the biggest jump in 15 months — to 142 basis points.
Fires blazed in the road as troops closed off streets after firing volleys of warning shots at protesters who hurled Molotov cocktails and set piles of tyres alight in a commercial area dotted with hotels, banks and Western embassies.
“We hope to return the situation to normal in the next few days,” said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.
The fresh wave of violence follows an assassination attempt on Thursday on renegade general Khattiya Sawasdipol, a military advisor to the red shirts, who was critically wounded while speaking to reporters. He underwent brain surgery and was in a critical condition.
Ten people have been killed and at least 125 were wounded, including three journalists — two Thais and a Canadian working for France 24 television — since the fighting erupted Thursday night, according to the Erawan medical centre.
Much of the city was braced for a crackdown at the main protest site where thousands of the red-shirted demonstrators, including women and children, have gathered, protected by medieval-like walls made from tyres and wooden staves soaked in kerosene and topped by razor wire.
Army spokesmen Sansern Kaewkamnerd on Friday said there were an estimated 500 armed “terrorists” among the thousands of protesters in the city.
A source close to army chief Anupong Paochinda said more troop reinforcements would be deployed, fearing more protesters would arrive to surround and attack soldiers.
“It’s unlikely to end quickly. There will be several skirmishes in the coming days but we are still confident we will get the numbers down and seal the area,” the source said.
The protestors say Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote influenced by the politically powerful military.
The two months of protests have spiralled into a crisis that has killed 36 people, wounded more than 1,400, paralysed parts of Bangkok, scared off investors and squeezed the economy.
Thousands of protesters remained defiant, calling for Abhisit to dissolve parliament immediately and take responsibility for the violence. Protest leaders wore flak jackets, fearing snipers might try to shoot them.
Some protest leaders, including the movement’s chairman, have not been seen at their 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) encampment for days.
In clashes during Friday, protesters set fire to a police bus and truck, a motorbike and tyres as they retreated down a road lined with office towers, hotels, the U.S. ambassador’s home and several embassies, which were closed and evacuated.
The latest violence followed the collapse of a reconciliation plan Abhisit proposed last week. An emergency decree was declared in 17 provinces deemed red shirt strongholds, to prevent unrest and to stop convoys of protesters from coming into Bangkok.
Abhisit is under enormous pressure to end the protests, which began with festive rallies on March 12 and descended into Thailand’s deadliest political violence in 18 years.
The Thai government stands a good chance of clearing the streets, the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy said.
“But it will not end the polarisation that has led to the current instability ... political volatility will remain a persistent problem for Thailand for the foreseeable future.”
Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong and Panarat Thepgumpanart; Editing by Matthew Jones