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Soldier killed in clash amid Thai protest

Thai security forces fired into a crowd of anti-government protesters on the outskirts of Bangkok on Wednesday in a bid to keep demonstrators contained in the capital. A soldier was killed and at least 18 protesters injured in the melee, the government’s Erawan emergency center reported.

It was not immediately clear whether the troops were using live ammunition, rubber bullets or both, and there was some speculation that the soldier was accidentally shot by security forces.

The showdown, the third time protests have turned deadly in the last three weeks, occurred along a major street connecting the capital with its northern suburbs as the Bangkok demonstrators, known as “Red Shirts,” tried to take their protest on the road in a convoy of vehicles.

Analysts said the clash raised the specter that the violence could spread.

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“The prospect of soldiers firing, even rubber bullets, on convoys in places other than downtown Bangkok leads one to imagine such confrontations all over Thailand,” said Michael Montesano, a Southeast Asia expert at the National University of Singapore. “If the Red Shirts are dispersed, they could spread all over the country’s northeast, a nightmare for security forces.”

The Red Shirts, mostly drawn from rural and working-class communities, have occupied parts of Bangkok for almost seven weeks, demanding the dissolution of the parliament, new elections and the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose government they say is illegitimate.

Abhisit has gone on a public relations counteroffensive, arguing his case to the Thai public and international audiences, including back-to-back interviews Wednesday on CNN and the BBC. “If the government gives in to intimidation and terrorist tactics, this sets a very bad precedent,” he said on CNN.

Abhisit also argued that Thailand needs to bridge political differences before it can have elections and that giving in to a small group of protesters in Bangkok would not serve the interests of the nation.

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Analysts said the media blitz has had some effect.

“In the past three or four days, Abhisit’s more strident line has played well with the domestic audience that is anti-red,” said Montesano. “That said, his government has shown no ability to heal political divisions.”

Wednesday’s confrontation occurred after Red Shirts, named for their preferred clothing color, announced that they were widening the protest beyond their base in downtown Bangkok. This appeared designed to provoke the government, which has said it wants to keep the crisis contained.

Led by anti-government leader and radio host Kwanchai Phraiphana, several hundred Red Shirt loyalists headed out of Bangkok in a ragtag convoy of trucks and motorcycles, daring the military to stop them.

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As the protesters approached a razor-wire barrier, riot squads blocking arterial Vibhavadi Rangsit Road initially fired into the air to deter them. But when some demonstrators tried to get around the barrier, the camouflage-attired forces lowered their weapons and fired directly at the crowd.

TV images showed police officers crouching behind riot shields as soldiers aimed their rifles from behind concrete pylons.

Kwanchai, for whom an arrest warrant has been issued, was seen ducking behind a vehicle as other protesters, some armed with sharpened bamboo sticks, set off fireworks to distract the troops. Kwanchai eluded arrest and returned to the Red Shirts’ main encampment in a Bangkok shopping district, which the group has vowed to defend “to the death.”

Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told reporters that troops had been instructed to use rubber bullets but were authorized to use live ammunition in self-defense.

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On April 22, one person was killed when grenades were launched in Bangkok, where a state of emergency has been declared. Twelve days earlier, 25 people were killed and several dozen hurt in clashes between protesters and security forces.

As the standoff continues, worsening a political crisis that has been festering for several years, many Bangkok residents find their patience tested.

“I don’t want citizens killing other citizens,” said Pratheep Salee, 31, a businessman. “I just want our country to return to the peace and happiness we once had.”

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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Winn is a special correspondent.


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