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Thai turmoil escalates as troops hit streets

Security forces were mobilized for the first time since 2006 as violence escalates – two people died in street clashes Monday.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 2009

OUTRAGE: Protesters in Bangkok have fought back against security forces mobilized Sunday to contain intensifying antigovernment riots. Here, a "red shirt" throws a weapon at police.

Vivek Prakash/Reuters

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Bangkok, Thailand

Troops have begun to repel antigovernment protesters in the Thai capital after a state of emergency was declared Sunday, marking a major flashpoint in a protracted crisis.

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Soldiers fired live rounds Monday to disperse crowds of red-shirted protesters, who used taxis and buses as barricades. Hospitals treated dozens of injured civilians and soldiers, including from gunshot wounds, though military officials deny that troops are firing into crowds. Sporadic clashes continued all day and are expected to intensify under the cover of night. Two people have been reported killed in clashes between protesters and residents.

"Red shirt" leaders loyal to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra are calling for a national uprising to oust a shaky coalition government, which has staked its future on the crackdown. Protesters have blockaded roads and railways in several towns across north and northeast Thailand.

By sending troops onto the streets for the first time since a coup in 2006, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva is trying to avoid the fate of his two predecessors, who failed last year to suppress round-the-clock demonstrations. The state of emergency empowers security forces to disperse large protests, detain civilians, and censor the media.

But the move risks widening rifts in a nation polarized by three years of political paralysis. It may also be running up against reluctance from the powerful military to become the villains of the drama, amid speculation of divided loyalties.

Security forces hold back

While Mr. Abhisit has insisted that he has taken charge and that order will be restored, troops have so far avoided the protesters' main encampment at a government compound. That raises doubts over the security forces' backing for Abhisit and of his longevity in the hot seat, says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consulting firm in Bangkok.

"It looks as though some of the military and police and other backers are less than happy with Abhisit, so they may be letting him twist in the wind," he says.

Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman for Abhisit, says he is being briefed frequently on the situation and is issuing instructions to a military-civilian coordinating body. He says it may take several days to contain all the protests in Bangkok and that authorities in other provinces had requested emergency powers, though none had been granted.

On Saturday, Abhisit cancelled a summit for Asian leaders in Pattaya after hundreds of red-shirted protesters stormed the delegations' hotel. He had earlier assured foreign leaders that tightened security around the venue was sufficient to deal with any disruption, but soldiers put up little resistance to the unarmed protesters.