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ASIA: Thai protests turn violent, 10 hurt

By Boonradom Chitradon
26 Nov 2008 12:48 AM

BANGKOK, Nov 25 AFP - Thai anti-government protesters opened fire on rival activists and beat them with sticks on Tuesday, wounding at least 10 people as a second day of demonstrations in Bangkok descended into violence.

The clash erupted on a road to the disused air terminal where thousands of demonstrators behind a six-month street campaign to topple the administration have besieged the makeshift headquarters of premier Somchai Wongsawat.

Separately, crowds clad in yellow clothes that symbolise their loyalty to Thailand's revered monarchy tried to blockade the main Suvarnabhumi international airport ahead of Somchai's return from a trip abroad.

"Ten pro-government supporters were wounded in the clash -- eight of them were from gunshots by PAD (People's Alliance for Democracy) members who were on a pick-up truck," a senior Metropolitan police officer told AFP.

"One of them is in a critical condition as he was shot in the chest. The other two were wounded when they were attacked with wooden sticks."

Television footage showed two men wearing yellow armbands over camouflage jackets firing pistols, before men in yellow shirts got out and beat rivals with white poles, as fires burned in the background.

Other images showed rival groups, including some wearing the red shirts of the pro-government camp, hurling stones and wooden staves at each other beneath a Bangkok flyover.

The clashes came a day after protests by the PAD -- a loose coalition comprising royalists, Bangkok's old elite and the middle class -- forced the cancellation of a parliamentary joint sitting on Monday,

The alliance has said it is in a "final battle" against the government elected in December, which it accuses of being a corrupt puppet of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup.

Somchai, who is Thaksin's brother-in-law, rejected the protesters' calls to quit and the government insisted that a key cabinet meeting would go ahead on Wednesday at an undisclosed location.

"Anyone who wants to overthrow or resist the government is attempting a rebellion," Somchai told the Thai National News Agency on board a flight from an APEC summit in Peru.

Somchai's plane had been diverted to land away from Suvarnabhumi Airport "due to heavy protests", government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar told AFP, without disclosing where it would touch down on Wednesday evening.

Early on Monday some 10,000 protesters surrounded Bangkok's old Don Mueang international airport where Somchai is temporarily based. Protesters have occupied the prime minister's official office in Bangkok since August.

Riot police largely withdrew on Monday amid fears of a repeat of clashes between protesters and police on October 7 that left two people dead and 500 injured, the worst political violence in Thailand for 16 years.

The PAD, which launched huge street protests in 2006 that led to the Thaksin coup, called this week's rallies in response to a grenade attack on Thursday that killed one protester.

About 2,000 of the demonstrators later moved to Suvarnabhumi, where they believed Somchai was headed, airport authorities told AFP.

Officials said there was no disruption to the handful of domestic flights that operate from Don Mueang or to services at Suvarnabhumi, although reports said traffic was beginning to mount on roads to the new airport.

Hundreds of PAD supporters also went to the Thai military headquarters, but army chief General Anupong Paojinda dismissed their calls for the military to step in.

"The armed forces have agreed that a coup cannot solve our country's problems and we will try to weather the current situation and pass this critical time," Anupong told reporters.

Billionaire Thaksin fled Thailand in August this year to avoid corruption charges, but has said in an interview that he wants to return.

"With me at the helm I can bring confidence quickly back to Thailand," he told Arabian Business magazine in an interview published Sunday on its website.