05/14/2010, 00.00
THAILAND
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Army begins final offensive against demonstrators in Bangkok, so far one dead, 12 wounded

The army is trying to clear the area under red-shirt control. Three reporters are wounded during the clashes. Demonstrators set bus and tyres on fire. Two army vehicles are torched. Suspended army officer who backed protesters is in come after being hit by a sniper. ACHR director slams the Thai government for the violence.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – The Thai military has launched its final offensive against red-shirted protesters holding out in Bangkok’s business district. Under orders from the government, soldiers have started to clear the area of demonstrators.

 Since yesterday afternoon, central Bangkok has come to resemble a battlefield; so far, one person has been killed and 12 wounded. Unconfirmed reports say a second person died. Three journalists, including a Canadian-born reporter working for France 24, were injured. The life of Khattiya Sawasdipol, a suspended army officer nicknamed "Seh Daeng" (Commander Red), was hanging by a thread after he was shot in the head, apparently by a sniper.

A possible split between the military and a police force that has loyalties to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) could further complicate matters, Thai experts say.

Such divisions could drag the country further towards civil war. This morning those fears were underlined after a Thai police officer fired bullets at soldiers during the clashes, a witness told Reuters.

A second death was reported by a CNN reporter near Rama IV Road, just south of the area under red-shirt control. The information could not however be confirmed.

In the meantime, as they began pulling back, protesters set fire to a bus, a motorbike and tyres. Red-shirts also torched two military vehicles near a Bangkok market.

Some protest leaders have apparently left the barricades because of disagreement with more intransigent colleagues.

So far, the political crisis that began in March with the takeover of some Bangkok streets by anti-government protesters has caused the death of 30 people and injuries to more than a thousand people.

Foreign investors are deserting the country and the tourist sector is reeling, pushing the economy to the brink. Stocks fell again today by 1.2 per cent.

The identity of the gunman who yesterday shot suspended army general Khattiya Sawasdipol remains unknown. Nicknamed the ‘red commander’, he was in charge of security in the area under red-shirt control. He is currently in hospital in a deep coma, fighting for his life.

He was hit during an interview with New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller. “He immediately dropped to the ground, his eyes were open but he was expressionless and his body wasn't moving at all,” Fuller told the BBC.

The government recently called him a terrorist, alleging that he was involved in dozens of grenade attacks that injured more than 100 people.

A red-shirt spokesperson blamed the army for the attempted murder, a claim rejected by the military, which insists that soldiers are under orders to fire only if fired upon.  

The civil strife causing havoc in the streets of Bangkok is also a source of concern for the continent’s activists and NGOs.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) warned against an impending human rights catastrophe against red shirt demonstrators, and condemned the violations of the right to life by the Thai government.

Contacted by AsiaNews, ACHR Director Suhas Chakma said, “The shooting of Khattiya Sawasdiphol is a clear indication of the government’s intent to eliminate all the leaders of the protest.” The general “was only giving an interview”; he “did not pose any threat to anyone, and he was shot [. . .] in the head”.

For Chakma, the fact that the army is using live ammunitions is further cause for concern. “We demand an enquiry into the killings that occurred on 10 April. The Red Shirts want justice” but “the government is not interested in giving justice to the victims.”

(Nirmala Carvalho contributed to the reporting)

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