BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai troops fired live rounds into charging anti-government protesters in a chaotic clash that killed a soldier and wounded 19 people on a congested highway in Bangkok’s suburbs on Wednesday.
In defiance of a state of emergency, about 2,000 “red shirt” protesters left their main protest site in central Bangkok’s shopping district on pickup trucks and motorbikes for a “mobile rally” but were halted by a roadblock of troops and riot police.
About 100 protesters who had moved ahead of the main convoy
charged at the security forces, who at first used batons and shields to push them back, witnesses said.
The red shirts hurled stones, shot metal balls from sling-shots and launched fireworks at the cordon of 450 soldiers.
Troops fired back with rubber bullets followed by live rounds, at first in the air and then narrowly over protesters’ heads, as onlookers dashed for cover in cars and buses in the traffic-choked area 40 km (25 miles) north of central Bangkok, Reuters photographers and witnesses said.
Three rounds of fighting finally stopped when a powerful tropical rainstorm drenched the area. By nightfall, troops had largely pulled out and many protesters returned to their 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) fortified encampment in central Bangkok.
Metropolitan police chief Worapong Chiewpreecha said the protesters left behind 62 sets of rocket-propelled M-79 grenades.
State agencies said one soldier was killed and 19 people were wounded. Witnesses said the soldier was shot through his helmet while riding on a motorbike towards security forces, apparently caught in friendly fire. Another soldier was wounded.
The crisis, pitting protesters seeking elections against the embattled, military-backed government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, is now in its seventh week. It has killed 27 people, wounded more than 900, paralysed Bangkok and hurt Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.
“The red shirts were testing the will of the security forces and now we saw that the government is getting serious about this,” said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a professor at Thammasat University.
“But it’s hard to pronounce victory for either side from the incident today. There is still a lot of uncertainty.”
The protesters began the day in high spirits, honking horns and singing as they headed for a market 50 km (30 miles) away in a rowdy, provocative procession.
The violence stoked fears of more unrest ahead after grenade attacks last Thursday in Bangkok’s business district killed a woman and wounded more than 80 people, and the military’s failed attempt to disperse protesters on April 10 killed 25 people.
The crisis is taking a deepening toll on Thailand’s economy.
Another three months of protests could shave 0.64 of a percentage point off Thailand’s 2010 economic growth forecast of 4.5 percent, according to government forecasters.
Tourism, a major industry that supports six percent of the economy and directly or indirectly employs 15 percent of the country, is crumbling in the face of travel warnings. Arrivals at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport have fallen by a third this month alone, government data show.
Thailand’s stock index, an emerging market darling over February and March, has lost more than 3 percent in April, when the protests turned violent, against a 1.8 percent rise in Asia’s markets outside of Japan.
The crisis has widened a political chasm between the rural masses and working poor that support the red shirts and what they call a “traditional elite” who have long run Thailand. Thais have rarely been so divided. Anger is building on both sides.
Analysts say a well-armed rogue military element led by retired generals is supporting the protesters and is allied with the red shirts’ de facto leader, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup. Thai newspapers talk of a looming civil war if neither side backs down.
Fears of a military crackdown on the occupied shopping district spread almost nightly, only to be dismissed as empty rumours each morning, keeping the city of 15 million in a heightened state of anxiety.
The red shirts’ medieval-like, three-metre (10 ft) high barricade in the business district -- built of bamboo staves and tyres -- has been doused with fuel so it can be turned into an explosive wall of fire should security forces try an assault.
Hopes for a negotiated end to the crisis were dashed at the weekend when the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit rejected a proposal by the protesters for an election in three months, saying he would not negotiate in the face of threats.
Some within the powerful military appear reluctant to be dragged into battle with civilians, urging a political solution. Army sources say a crackdown on the red shirts could cause high casualties and spill into upscale residential neighbourhoods.
The protesters are demanding immediate elections. Abhisit says he is willing to call elections in December, a year early. Both sides want to be in power during a September reshuffle of the country’s powerful military and police forces.
If Thaksin’s camp prevails and is governing at the time of the reshuffle, analysts expect big changes including the ousting of generals allied with Thailand’s royalist elite, a prospect royalists fear could diminish the power of the monarchy.
With so much at stake, the deadlock could continue for weeks.
The red shirts say Abhisit came to power illegitimately in 2008, heading a coalition cobbled together with the help of the military, after a pro-Thaksin government fell when a court dissolved a party affiliated with him.
Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon revered by the poor and reviled by Bangkok’s elite, was convicted in absentia on corruption-related charges and lives abroad to avoid jail.
Additional reporting by Adrees Latif and Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Jeremy Laurence