Thailand's embattled premier vowed to clear Bangkok's commercial heart of anti-government Red Shirt protesters as he appeared on national television today in a show of unity with his army chief. But the prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva did not say when security forces planned to regain control of the Red Shirts' sprawling protest site, which has been fortified with barricades made from truck tyres and sharpened bamboo poles.
The Reds, who are demanding elections to replace the government, have for three weeks occupied the Ratchaprasong intersection, and the protesters fear a crackdown is looming after Mr Abhisit rejected their offer of a compromise. "There will be a retaking of Ratchaprasong but the process, the measures, how and when it will be done we cannot disclose because it depends on several things," said Mr Abhisit.
"The main point now is not whether or not to disperse but how to solve the whole problem," added the premier, who has been holed up in a military barracks since street rallies erupted in mid-March. The pre-recorded televised appearance by the premier and the army chief General Anupong Paojinda was seen as an attempt to quash speculation of a rift between the two men on how to deal with the crippling political crisis.
Mr Anupong said the military would follow government orders. "We are an army for the nation, for the monarchy and for the people. We will do our job without taking sides. We will follow government policy," he said. The army chief said on Friday that the use of force was no solution to the crisis, which has twice descended into deadly street violence this month, leaving 26 dead and hundreds injured. When troops tried to sweep Reds out of Bangkok's historic area on April 10 they suffered a humiliating retreat, and there is growing talk of "watermelon" soldiers - green outside but red inside - who support the protesters.
Mr Anupong played down talk of a split within the army, which has been sending out mixed signals on how it prefers to handle the demonstrators, who are defying a state of emergency and a ban on rallies in the capital. "As for a rift in the army, it is possible there will be rifts in a big organisation but the number of people who have different ideas are not many and this will not cause problems," he said.
He admitted, however, that some serving troops apparently fought alongside the Red Shirts in the April 10 clashes. "We have information that a group of armed people has been set up. Some of them are in the army but have no (senior) position, the rest are not, but may be retired or former members," Mr Anupong said. Hopes for an agreement to end the long-running protests were dashed on Saturday as Mr Abhisit ruled out the Red Shirts' offer to disperse if parliament were dissolved in 30 days for elections in three months' time.
In response the Reds - mostly rural poor and urban working class supporters of the ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra - said they would prepare for a military offensive to clear their heavily fortified rally encampment. "Abhisit has ordered a crackdown on protesters within 48 hours, that is the information I have learned," said the Red leader Nattawut Saikuar late yesterday. Mr Nattawut did not say where the information came from but other Red leaders said earlier they had learned from sympathisers in the army that troops were being mobilised despite ongoing negotiations.
In northeast Udon Thai province, about 150 police officers were prevented from travelling to the capital by more than one thousand Red Shirts who blocked their way late on Saturday, local police colonel Kittisak Jamrasprasert said. Fears of a crackdown escalated earlier in the week amid warnings from the military that protesters would face live weapons fire in any new clashes. Mr Abhisit's highly anticipated address was interrupted for several minutes after an unidentified party cut the satellite signal, officials said, but the programme later resumed and was shown again from the start.