BANGKOK (AP) – Thousands of troops fired warning shots and tear gas at anti-government protesters rampaging across the Thai capital on Monday, forcing demonstrators to retreat and regroup for what organizers said would be a “final stand.”
For 12 hours, red-shirted protesters and the soldiers locked in a series of running street battles across Bangkok that left at least 79 people injured in a major escalation of the country’s ongoing political turmoil.
Malls and shops were shuttered and official celebrations for the Thai new year were canceled. More than a dozen countries, including the United States, issued travel warnings urging citizens to avoid trips to Thailand and for those already in Bangkok to stay in their hotels and away from the protests.
The violence threatens to slash tourism revenue and could lead to the loss of 200,000 jobs in the industry that directly employs about 2 million people, Kongkrit Hiranyakit, chairman of the Tourism Council of Thailand, said.
As evening fell Monday, some of the 6,000 troops deployed in Bangkok began moving toward Government House, where the protesters have been holding out since March 26. An estimated 5,000 of the demonstrators were gathered in the area.
An army spokesman said troops fired blank bullets into the crowds and live shots overhead.
“This will be our final stand. I beg that you return here and face them together,” protest leader Jatuporn Phromphan shouted from a platform. “We will use peaceful means and stay right here to end their violence.”
The demonstrators are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying his four-month-old government came to power illegally.
Hundreds of soldiers and police assembled at the Royal Plaza, about a mile (less than 2 kilometers) from the Government House confronting about 100 female protesters who knelt down and screamed “Please stop, brothers.” Some hugged the soldiers.
Protesters commandeered public buses to block several key intersections, set tires and vehicles on fire and sent two unmanned buses, one of them burning, hurtling toward lines of soldiers. The bus swerved and then ricocheted off trees on the side of the road before coming to a halt, with no one injured. The other bus also crashed without injuring anyone.
In one of several confrontations, a line of troops in full battle gear fired volleys of M-16 fire, most of it aimed above the heads of protesters and turned water cannons on the crowd near Victory Monument, a major traffic circle.
The red-shirted demonstrators are supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and want new elections and Abhisit’s ouster. They accuse the country’s elite – the military, judiciary and other unelected officials – of undermining democracy by interfering in politics.