BANGKOK (Reuters) - A grenade blast wounded 46 anti-government protesters in Bangkok, hospital officials said on Sunday, the latest escalation in the country’s increasingly violent political crisis.
The blast occurred around midnight at Government House, where thousands of supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who have occupied the prime minister’s compound since August in a bid to unseat him, were attending a rally.
A spokeswoman for the Erawan Medical Center said at least 46 people had been wounded.
Channel 3 television showed footage of the wounded being rushed to hospital in pickup trucks. It said at least two people were in critical condition.
“I had come down from the stage about 30 minutes before the grenade dropped into a crowded area,” PAD leader Suriyasai Katasila told Channel 3.
He blamed pro-government supporters for the attack, which came as the PAD’s dramatic blockade of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport entered its fifth day.
The sit-ins at Suvarnabhumi, and the city’s old airport Don Muang now used for domestic flights, are part of the PAD’s “final battle” launched on Monday to unseat Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.
They accuse the prime minister of being a puppet of his brother-in-law, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in exile.
Somchai, who has refused to quit, imposed emergency rule at the airports two days ago but police have made no moves to evict the thousands of protesters.
Somchai effectively sacked his police chief on Friday, blaming him for mishandling the protests, Thai media said.
The unrest has paralyzed flights at both airports, stranded thousands of passengers and sparked rumors of a military coup, even though the army chief has said he will not seize control.
In Saturday night’s clash at Suvarnabhumi, 150 riot police fled their checkpoint after they were attacked by PAD militants armed with iron rods, slingshots and hurling firecrackers.
The onslaught lasted 15 seconds but left the five-lane highway, the main access route to the $4 billion airport, littered with broken glass and discarded police helmets and truncheons.
Earlier, about 2,000 PAD members forced riot police to abandon another checkpoint near the airport. There was no violence, but one police officer was detained by PAD “security guards,” the Nation newspaper reported on its website.
PAD supporters have vowed to “fight to the death,” and youths armed with iron stakes manned barricades, scanning the horizon with binoculars for signs of police or pro-government gangs.
“If they come, we’ll not open the door. If they shoot us, we’ll shoot them back. We’ll die if that makes the country better,” PAD leader Sondhi Limthongul told supporters, the most explicit admission yet by the movement that they are armed.
The airport closures have crippled the tourism industry during the peak end-of-year season.
Deputy Prime Minister Olarn Chaipravat said the damage to Thailand’s tourist image may cut arrivals by half in 2009 from an expected 13.5 million this year, and threaten one million jobs.
The government will spend $30 million over the next month to help stranded tourists, he told reporters, including giving them free hotel rooms and a daily stipend of $56.
“It has been very frustrating,” said Ian Fraser, an Australian who was due to return home on Wednesday after a month of lectures in Thailand.
The government is shuttling tourists to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 150 km (90 miles) east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines, but travelers have complained of massive delays and confusion.
The crisis has increased pressure on the army to oust the prime minister, as they did Thaksin in 2006, after Somchai rejected military calls to quit this week.
But army chief Anupong Paochinda has said he would not take over, arguing the military cannot heal fundamental political rifts between the Bangkok elite and middle classes, who despise Thaksin, and the poor rural and urban majority who love him.
Additional reporting by David Fox, Orathai Sriring and Vithoon Amorn; Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Sophie Hares