BANGKOK, Thailand – Thai soldiers sprayed automatic weapons fire into the air and threw tear gas to clear protesters blocking roads in the capital in the pre-dawn darkness today. Demonstrators responded by hurling at least one gasoline bomb, and 70 people were reported injured, most by tear gas.
Police said anti-government protesters were stationed at at least half a dozen points in Bangkok, including the prime minister’s office. Demonstrators used commandeered public buses to block several key intersections, and they set tires on fire.
Today’s clash marked a major escalation in the protests that have roiled this southeast Asian nation. The skirmish came a day after the country’s ousted prime minister called for a revolution.
While the government has declared a state of emergency, protesters controlled many streets in the capital Bangkok. They had earlier commandeered public buses and forced military vehicles to halt, in one case climbing on top of two armored personnel carriers, waving flags and shouting, “Democracy!”
A mob of red-shirted protesters smashed cars carrying Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his aides on Sunday. The secretary-general of Abhisit’s office, Niphon Promphan, was dragged from the car and beaten, suffering head injuries and broken ribs.
The red-shirted demonstrators are supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who want new elections, saying Abhisit’s four-month-old government took power illegitimately.
Parliament appointed Abhisit in December after a court ordered the removal of the previous pro-Thaksin government, citing fraud in the 2007 elections. Thaksin supporters took to the streets in protest, and their numbers grew to 100,000 in Bangkok last week.
Today’s clash began between 4 and 5 a.m., as troops in full combat gear advanced to disperse the protesters, who were occupying a major junction, according to witnesses.
The soldiers fired hundreds of rounds from their M-16 automatic rifles, with Associated Press reporters saying most appeared to have been aimed over the heads of the protesters. The reporters saw protesters throw at least one gasoline bomb, which exploded behind the army line, and tear gas floated across the eerie scene.
Today marked the beginning of the Thai New Year, normally the country’s most joyous holiday. The Bangkok municipal government canceled all its festivities, but despite the rioting many Thais and foreign tourists began engaging in the ritualistic water throwing and general partying.