BANGKOK // Thailand's powerful army chief stepped in to end the siege of Bangkok's main airport today, telling the prime minister to call new elections and mobs of anti-government protesters to disperse. Gen Anupong Paojinda denied he was staging a coup, but with Bangkok's airport and main government offices now in the control of protesters, and lawlessness spreading, he said the premier Somchai Wongsawat should hold new polls. "We will send him a letter to inform that he must dissolve the house and call new elections," the general told a news conference after an urgent meeting of military and business leaders to address the deepening crisis. "This is not a coup," he said. "The government still has full authority. These points are the way to solve the problem which has plunged the country into a deep crisis. "As army chief, if I launch a coup the problems would be solved once and for all. But there would be a lot of consequences including the international reaction." Earlier today, hundreds of flights were cancelled and passengers stranded as protesters took over Thailand's Suvarnabhumi Airport. Authorities later began evacuating travellers who were stranded overnight in the capital's international airport after anti-government protesters stormed the building. Hundreds of weary travellers were herded out of the arrivals area at Suvarnabhumi International airport on to buses provided by the facility's operator, the correspondent said. More than 3,000 passengers have been trapped there since last night, when demonstrators swarmed the building to press their campaign against the government. The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) "agreed to allow Airports of Thailand (AOT) and Thai Airways to evacuate 3,000 stranded passengers into town as soon as possible," an AOT official said earlier. "AOT will provide 15 buses and Thai Airways will be responsible for city accommodation," the official told reporters. There was no immediate comment from the PAD. All flights were cancelled earlier today as protesters thronged the complex in efforts to bring down the government, stranding thousands of tourists and buffeting the country's already-fragile tourism industry. The airport takeover was one of the boldest gambles yet by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in its four-month campaign to topple Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, whom it accuses of being the puppet of a disgraced fugitive predecessor, the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra.
Exhausted travellers tried to sleep on suitcases, on luggage carts, on security conveyor belts and behind vacated check-in counters. Protesters dressed in yellow shirts walked around distributing food, sandwiches and packets of rice. "We'd rather they just go home so we can go home," said Kay Spitler, 58, from Glendale, Arizona. The alliance vowed to bring its campaign to a final showdown this week, and violence has spiked, including street clashes between supporters and opponents of the government yesterday that included the first open use of firearms by the anti-government protesters. Police said 11 government supporters were injured, some with gunshot wounds.
Earlier today, assailants threw four explosives at anti-government protesters, including one targeting a group about one kilometre from Suvarnabhumi Airport. A second was tossed into a crowd of supporters gathered at the domestic Don Muang airport, injuring three others, police said. Two other explosives were thrown in Bangkok but no one was injured. Demonstrators - some masked and armed with metal rods - swarmed the international airport overnight, breaking through police lines and spilling into the passenger terminal.
Eighteen flights were diverted to Don Muang airport, which normally handles domestic traffic and a dozen others were rerouted to U Taphao military airport about 190 kilometres east of Bangkok, as well as to Hong Kong and Singapore airports, airport officials said.
The airport director Serirat Prasutanont said authorities were trying to negotiate with the protesters to allow stranded passengers to fly out. "The incident has damaged Thailand's reputation and its economy beyond repair," he said. The alliance said protesters would keep the airport closed until they get the resignation of Mr Somchai, who was scheduled to return later today from an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru and was to land at a military airport.
Suvarnabhumi is the world's 18th largest airport in passenger traffic, handling over 40 million passengers in 2007. *Agencies