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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Thai troops in riot gear advance on protesters

Anti-government protesters wear masks as they prepare for the teargas outside a closed downtown shopping mall where thousands of anti-government proteAP – Anti-government protesters wear masks as they prepare for the teargas outside a closed downtown shopping …

BANGKOK – Soldiers and police in riot gear advanced on the two main rally sites held by anti-government protesters in the Thai capital on Saturday, vowing to clear one of them by nightfall.

Clashes between protesters and troops thus far have already injured dozens of people.

The deployment came after protesters were pushed back by water cannons and rubber bullets from the headquarters of the 1st Army Region. The city's elevated mass transit system known as the Skytrain, which runs past one of the protest sites, closed all its stations as possible confrontation loomed.

Emboldened demonstrators vowed earlier in the day to ratchet up pressure on the government after their first violent skirmish with soldiers Friday eroded the prime minister's credibility and exposed concerns about the army's loyalty.

The so-called Red Shirts are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call new elections. They claim that he came to power illegitimately in December 2008 with the help of military pressure on Parliament.

Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd told the Nation Channel cable TV station that security forces will try to reclaim the rally site near Pan Fah bridge in the old part of Bangkok "before dusk." The area was occupied by Red Shirt protesters about a months ago.

They have since spread to several sites in the capital, including one in the heart of Bangkok's tourist and shopping district. There, security forces would "pressure the protesters," Sansern said, though he did not say they would oust them completely.

Dr. Samart Tanariyakul of the government's Erawan emergency center, told Nation Channel that 84 people have been hurt in clashes between protesters and security forces, including 19 soldiers and 3 policemen. Sansern said two soldiers have been shot and injured.

On Friday, the army failed to prevent demonstrators from breaking into the compound of a satellite transmission station — widely seen as undercutting the authority of Abhisit, who had been insisting on minimizing the use of force by security forces.

Government forces have confronted the protesters before, but pulled back rather than risk bloodshed.

Police made a failed effort to serve arrest warrants on three protest leaders in the morning, and tensions rose when the demonstrators — who with trucks and motorcycles form a sort of mobile strike force — gathered outside the Bangkok headquarters of the 1st Army Region.

The confrontation raised concern at a main rally site, in the heart of Bangkok's shopping and tourist district, that authorities were planning an imminent raid. Protest leaders handed out damp towels and face masks to protect against tear gas, and called for more followers to gather.

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