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Several explosions in Thailand’s capital, reportedly caused by rocket-propelled grenades, erupted amid crowds of government supporters at a rally late Thursday evening. The attacks killed at least one person and wounded 86, and left the Thai capital locked in panic.
The explosions came as thousands of antigovernment protesters faced off against security forces in Bangkok in the latest in two months of tense showdowns.
The incident brought messages of concern from the United Nations, while the governments of the US, Great Britain, and Australia warned citizens against any but essential travel to Thailand. By Friday morning, Bangkok’s otherwise vibrant financial district was reported to be shuttered, with streets largely deserted.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for Thursday’s attacks, which the government blamed on unnamed "terrorists" – stopping short of naming the so-called Red Shirt antigovernment protesters whose demonstrations have intermittently paralyzed the Thai capital for six weeks now. Red Shirt demonstrators quickly denied responsibility.
The Red Shirts consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 after months of demonstrations by the Yellow Shirts.
The Red Shirts believe the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is illegitimate because it came to power under military pressure through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments. They want Parliament dissolved and new elections held.
The explosions were the culmination of an already tense day. Thousands of Red Shirt demonstrators had turned the financial district into a lockdown zone, erecting tents and barricades from tires and cement blocks, The New York Times reports. On the other side of the barricades, security forces and military personnel gathered in force, while pro-government demonstrators shouted and waves pro-government flags.
It took hours of negotiations to prevent a bloody row, according to The Bangkok Post. By the afternoon, a tense truce of sorts had been reached: Red Shirt demonstrators and the police each agreed to pull back 300 feet from the dividing barricade.
But by evening, the night lit up with the pop of explosions. The first of three blasts struck an elevated train station, causing pedestrians to run for cover. Two more blasts seemed to target hundreds of demonstrators who had turned out to support the government.
The M-79 grenades appear to have been fired from camps near where the Red Shirts had erected a series of barricades along the financial district’s main thoroughfare, reports The Associated Press.
Thursday's incident brings to 26 the total number of deaths in protests since the Red Shirts began their campaign about two months ago, when Thailand deployed thousands of security forces ahead of a court verdict on $2.2 billion in frozen assets belonging to an exiled but still-popular former Prime Minister Thaksin. And some worry that violence is spreading, pointing to the appearance of new protesters opposed to the Red Shirts, as The Guardian reports. After the explosions Thursday night, these pro-government factions hurled bottles and rocks at the Red Shirts, forcing government forces to intervene between the two.
As the Monitor recently reported, some of the pro-government forces are known as the Yellow Shirts, and have vowed to counteract Red Shirt demonstrations. The government, meanwhile, is getting impatient, the Guardian adds.
Spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd told protesters: "We don't want you to risk your lives. If there is a clash you could be hurt by stray bullets. Your time is running out. Please leave the area."