BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters laid siege to Bangkok’s international airport on Wednesday to demand that Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat resign, challenging him directly as he returns from a foreign trip.
Supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) had stormed the Suvarnabhumi Airport, hub for Thailand’s lucrative tourist industry, on Tuesday in an escalation of its six-month campaign to oust Somchai.
Thousands of travelers were stranded after the authorities shut down the airport and canceled flights.
Earlier in the day, gunfire broke out on the streets of the Thai capital as armed alliance members opened fire on government supporters. At least 11 people were hurt, officials said
Overnight, protestors blocked off access roads to the airport.
Somchai was due to return on Wednesday from an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru but would not land at Suvarnabhumi, a government spokesman said. The Nation newspaper said on its website he would arrive at the northern city of Chiang Mai then fly to Bangkok to chair a special cabinet meeting.
“I will get off the plane wherever it lands,” the Bangkok Post quoted Somchai as saying from Peru.
The alliance accuses Somchai of being a puppet of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, his brother-in-law.
Thaksin, who was accused of corruption and authoritarianism while in office, is living overseas after skipping bail to avoid graft charges following his overthrow by the army in 2006.
The movement has the backing of Bangkok’s urban middle classes and elite, while Thaksin and the government largely claim their support from the rural voters and urban poor.
Worsening bloodshed could provoke another coup but army chief General Anupong Paochinda said on Tuesday that military intervention would not resolve the fundamental political rifts.
The Nation quoted an unnamed source as saying Somchai planned to issue an emergency decree authorizing soldiers to restore order in Bangkok. The report could not be confirmed.
Security officials canceled flights out of the airport, one of Asia’s busiest airports and gateway for nearly 15 million visitors to Thailand each year, after the protesters rampaged through the terminal.
“We were going home and suddenly everything came to a halt,” said Australian tourist Steve as he wheeled a trolley of suitcases through the airport building.
More than 40 flights to Japan, India, Europe and other destinations were canceled, but inbound flights could still land, airport director Sereerat Prasutanont told Thai television.
“We have to suspend our service until negotiations with the protesters reach an agreement,” he said.
The airport siege capped a dramatic day in which alliance gunmen fired at pro-government supporters in another part of Bangkok. The alliance said they were defending themselves after being attacked first with planks and stones.
The airport blockade and the violence could undermine support for the movement.
“This move will only further erode the rapidly dwindling public support, a hard-earned provision that the protesters badly need especially at this critical juncture of its campaign,” the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.
“This latest action by the People’s Alliance for Democracy comes closer to terrorizing the public.,” it said.
The unrest could also deepen the economic impact of the long-running political crisis that has stymied government decision-making and raised fears about the export-driven economy’s ability to cope with a global recession.
Editing by Angus MacSwan