Thai army leader asks prime minister to step down

Attacks on antigovernment protesters injured at least seven at Thailand's main airport and in Bangkok Wednesday.

Thailand's army commander has urged the government to step down and hold new elections following a series of bomb blasts on Wednesday. The plea comes as protesters entered the second day of their siege on the country's main airport, wreaking havoc on Thailand's prosperous tourism industry.

"A blast at Bangkok's international airport and grenade attacks elsewhere in the city wounded at least seven people on Wednesday, as lawlessness spread amid antigovernment protests, officials said," according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

"At least two people were wounded by a bomb blast at Suvarnabhumi this morning," Petpong Kamchornkitkarn, an emergency medical services official, told AFP.
Two local television stations said a grenade was fired at protesters and that three people were wounded.
A near simultaneous grenade attack on anti-government protesters picketing Bangkok's old Don Mueang airport, where the prime minister has set up temporary offices, wounded two more people, Petpong said.
Another three people were wounded when two grenades were tossed into a crowd of pro-government supporters on a road to Don Mueang, the site of a clash between rival activists that left 11 hurt on Tuesday, police said.

Amid the violence, Thailand's influential army commander has told the government it should call a new election to end the crisis, the Associated Press (AP) reported Wednesday.

"The government should give the public a chance to decide in a fresh election," Gen. Anupong Paochinda said at a news conference after meeting with high-level government officials, academics, economists and security officials.

The general told protesters at a news conference that a military coup "would not resolve the deepening political turmoil in Thailand," England's Guardian newspaper reports.

"We are not pressuring the government," Anupong said....
"If a coup could end all the troubles, I would do it. It is not going to resolve anything," he said.

The Thai government quickly "rejected the army chief's plea," Reuters reports.

"The prime minister has said many times that he will not quit or dissolve parliament because he has been democratically elected. That still stands," [Government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar] told Channel 3 television.

The dramatic standoff follows months of intermittent protest that reached a crescendo yesterday, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

On Tuesday, members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) clashed with government supporters and continued besieging Don Muang airport, where government officials had set up a temporary office. They also swarmed Thailand's main international airport and blocked the road to it in anticipation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's return Wednesday, forcing all departing flights to be suspended.

Thailand's Bangkok Post reports that many were wounded following the take of the main airport.

Government supporters initially hurled rocks and other objects at a vehicle carrying the PAD protesters, who then retaliated with slingshots and gunfire.
Eleven people were injured and taken to hospital.

The airport seizure is part of what the protesters are calling "a final push against the country's leaders," The New York Times explains.

They prevented one important parliamentary session, and have said they plan to prevent any future sessions or Cabinet meetings, effectively paralyzing the government.
The protesters, a loose coalition of royalists, academics and members of the urban elite, say they are frustrated with years of vote-buying and corruption. Many are also skeptical of Thai democracy in its current form and propose a voting system that would lessen the representation of lower-income Thais, whom they say are particularly susceptible to vote-buying.

The violence will spell financial trouble for Thailand's tourism industry, CNN reports.

Kongkrit Hiranyakit, head of the Tourism Council of Thailand, told The Associated Press that the bombings, at the height of the high season which runs from late October to February, could cut income from tourism to half the expected 240 billion baht ($6.8 billion)....
The travel industry has already seen a drop off in tourist numbers after protesters shutdown Phuket airport for two days in August and with continued anti-government protests in central Bangkok resulting in violence.
The British Foreign Office has warned tourists to take care in the city after two people were killed and more than 400 were injured during recent clashes between protesters and police....
The U.S. State Department has also warned people traveling to Thailand to exercise caution, especially in locations where Westerners congregate.

Tourism is not the only industry suffering: Thailand's stock market plunged to new lows amid the turmoil, Reuters reports:

The unrest forced the stock market and Thai baht lower in early trade as investors feared the political crisis would exacerbate the problems facing the Thai economy, but stocks had turned higher by the close amid speculation Somchai would quit.
Thailand's finance minister has said the protests could have a damaging effect on the economy, which depends on tourism and exports, both vulnerable to the global economic slowdown.
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