Thai protesters defy orders to quit airports
Defiant protesters ignored orders to leave Bangkok's besieged airports and faced off with Thai police yesterday, raising fears of clashes as crippling anti-government demonstrations escalated.
A grenade attack on protesters occupying the Thai premier's office wounded at least 46 people yesterday, further raising tensions as police tried to end the opposition blockade of Bangkok's airports.
Unknown attackers lobbed a grenade near a stage set up for rallies at Government House, the latest in a string of explosions at the site which was stormed by activists in August, a police official told AFP.
A Bangkok emergency services spokesman said 46 people were wounded in the blast. Some appeared to be critically hurt but the numbers were not immediately clear, the spokesman said.
"Protesters have returned to their positions, they are not scared," Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement, told local Channel Three television.
Tensions mounted with Thai television showing angry demonstrators arguing with police on a road to the main Suvarnabhumi airport as officers tried to set up a checkpoint to stop more people flocking to the protest site.
Despite Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's declaration of emergency rule at the airports on Wednesday, protesters trying to topple his elected government remain entrenched, barricading themselves in with barbed wire and tyres.
"If we have to die today, I am willing to die. This is a fight for dignity," said Sondhi Limthongkul, the founder of the People's Alliance for Democracy protest movement, said on his private television station.
Police said they had given formal warnings overnight to protesters at both Suvarnabhumi international airport and the smaller, domestic Don Mueang airport to leave immediately or face action to evict them.
"Police have already issued two warnings since last night (Friday) to ask them to leave," Major General Piya Sorntrakoon, deputy commander of Thailand's central region, told AFP.
At Suvarnabhumi, demonstrators headed inside as rumours of a police raid circulated. Protesters set up a medical corner to treat anyone injured if clashes broke out, while water and other supplies were stacked up.
Some women carried pink helmets, readying themselves for any action. Children are also among the crowd.
Suvarnabhumi has been shuttered since late Tuesday, and every day the siege continues, 30,000 more passengers miss flights and the kingdom loses seven million dollars in tourism revenue, ministers and officials have said.
The army chief has said he does not want to remove the protesters for fear of bloody clashes, and on Wednesday urged Somchai to dissolve parliament and hold new elections -- calls the premier promptly rejected.
In signs of further rifts between the government and security forces, Somchai on Friday removed national police chief General Patcharawat Wongsuwan, as police failed to take action after the emergency rule order.
The protesters are calling for the resignation of the government elected in December, saying it is running Thailand on behalf of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and is banned from politics.
The government said it tried to start negotiations with the PAD, but protest leaders have so far rebuffed the overtures, and say they will stay remain at the airports until the resignation of Somchai -- Thaksin's brother-in-law.
A police officer estimated Saturday that 3,000 protesters were camped out at Suvarnabhumi, about 1,000 were at Don Mueang, and only 700 remained at the premier's Government House offices.
Numbers are expected to swell over the weekend.
The PAD, a loose coalition with the backing of elements in the military, the palace and the urban middle classes, began its campaign in late May.
Protests have steadily escalated, with the PAD seizing Government House in late August. On October 7, two protesters were killed and 500 people injured as PAD supporters and police clashed outside parliament.
The leaders called for a "final battle" against the government on Sunday and have since caused the biggest disruption since the anti-Thaksin coup, although their airport-blocking tactics have alienated some supporters.
Government spokesman Suparat Nakbunnam has said Somchai will remain in the northern city of Chiang Mai indefinitely, a pro-government stronghold, "as there are still uncertainties in the tensions between the government and army."
Meanwhile, the repatriation of thousands of foreign passengers following protests which have paralysed Bangkok's airports could take up to a month, the deputy premier said yesterday.
Thailand's main international airport will officially remain closed for another two days, airport authorities said Saturday, as protesters continued to occupy the building.
Anti-government demonstrators occupied Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on Tuesday and the domestic Don Mueang airport was closed on Thursday, stranding tens of thousands of travellers.
Despite the declaration of a state of emergency at both sites by embattled Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, police have failed to act against the protesters amid fears of violence.
The effects on Thailand's tourism industry are set to be "mammoth", with up to one million Thais facing losing their jobs and the number of visitors from abroad falling by half next year, Olarn Chaiprawat said.
Around 30,000 passengers a day are missing flights because of the closures, and with travellers currently being evacuated from a Vietnam War-era navy base in eastern Thailand, progress has been slow.
"The operation to help return passengers home may take around one month from now to be done," Olarn told a news conference.
Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi international airport closed on Tuesday after protesters stormed the terminal and authorities shut Don Mueang domestic airport on Thursday after a similar blockade.
Olarn said up to 50,000 Thais were stuck abroad because of the occupation, which police have shown no signs of wanting to end amid fears of bloody clashes with protesters.