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Thai troops struggle to contain Bangkok protests

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai authorities said on Thursday they would intensify efforts to contain anti-government protests in Bangkok, a day after a soldier was killed in the latest clash of a campaign to force early elections.

The “red shirt” supporters of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra remained defiant in their makeshift encampment in the capital after skirmishes with Thai troops on Wednesday on a busy highway in Bangkok’s northern suburb wounded 19 people.

“We are ready for them to come to get us. Let’s see how many of us they have to kill to satisfy them,” said Saman Chantikul, a 50-year-old fruit seller who was among thousands occupying Bangkok’s upscale shopping district for nearly a month.

“We are not going anywhere until this government listens to us.”

Seven weeks of increasingly violent protests and their economic toll on Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy are piling more pressure on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to end the crisis that has killed 27 people and paralyzed Bangkok.

Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told Reuters troops at checkpoints on roads leading into the area would stop people bringing in weapons and might discourage more from going in.

But red shirt leader Weng Tojirakarn said he expected more protesters to join the mostly rural and urban poor movement seeking to throw the government out. “We believe victory is near,” he said to loud cheers from thousands in their encampment behind medieval-like barricades made of tires, bamboo poles and chunks of concrete.

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About 100 protesters on Thursday entered Chulalongkorn Hospital, which lies alongside their encampment. A witness said they were looking for troops they suspected were stationed inside. They later left the building.

With neither side showing any sign of compromise, analysts expect the stalemate to go on with potential flashpoints ahead.

“The army appears to be applying pressure a little at a time, and at the end, there may still be room for a political compromise. But we will have to see who caves first,” said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a professor at Thammasat University.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban acknowledged to reporters on Thursday it would be hard to forcibly eject the red shirts because many women and children are among them.

Red shirt leaders appealed to the European Union to send observers to Bangkok to prevent a violent crackdown in a letter they handed to EU Ambassador David Lipman at his office. In the letter, they said were open to negotiations.

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Lipman called for “constructive dialogue and a negotiated solution to the current political crisis through peaceful and democratic means.”

Thailand has insisted the deepening crisis is an internal affair. The foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday it was concerned about the visits diplomats have made to the protest site “which could be misconstrued as the rally is illegal” and many of the protest leaders have arrest warrants against them. Thailand’s central bank on Thursday projected economic growth this year of 4.3-5.8 percent. But a squeeze on consumption, tourism and investment from the protests shaved nearly a percentage point off the forecast, the bank said. [ID:nSGE63S0DH]

Thai stocks ended up 0.5 percent, compared with slight falls in neighboring markets.[ID:nSGE63S03E] But Kim Eng Securities, Thailand’s top brokerage, said investors may be underestimating the impact unrest is having on economic growth.

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“With 60 percent of GDP growth hinging on consumption, there is downside risk,” it said.

The violence has had a devastating effect on Thailand’s tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy and 15 percent of the workforce. Arrivals at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport have fallen by a third since violence broke out.


About 300 supporters from a rival protest group, the “yellow shirts,” went to the prime minister’s office to demand military action to disperse the red shirts.

“The red shirts have created a state within a state and they are getting away with it with impunity,” said Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the group who closed down Bangkok’s main airport for a week in late 2008 and helped bring down a pro-Thaksin government. “The authorities must put an end to this.”

Wednesday’s bloodshed flared after 2,000 red shirts moved out of the central shopping area in a “mobile rally.”

Fighting erupted on a crowded highway 40 km (25 miles) north of central Bangkok when security forces barred their way. Troops fired rubber bullets and live rounds, first in the air and then into the charging protesters, Reuters witnesses said.

Suthep, the deputy prime minister, said any similar rally would meet the same response.

“We are going to have to adjust our plans,” protest leader Nattawut Saikua told Reuters. “Mobile rallies are going to be dangerous, so we have to think carefully before going out again.”

Hopes of a deal to end the violence faded after British-born, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva last weekend rejected a red shirt proposal for an election in three months, saying he would not negotiate in the face of threats.

The red shirts oppose what they say is the unelected royalist elite that controls Thailand and broadly back Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 but before that built up a following among the poor through rural development and welfare policies.

The former telecoms tycoon was convicted in absentia on corruption-related charges and lives abroad to avoid jail.

Additional reporting by the Bangkok bureau; Writing by Bill Tarrant; editing by Jason Szep