BANGKOK // Violence in the centre of the Thai capital killed at least eight more people and injured almost 50 yesterday as the prime minister vowed there would be no turning back and the army threatened a final crackdown on the Red Shirts' encampment. In the past three days, as anti-government protesters and Thai troops battled for control of the heart of the capital, at least 24 people, including a 10-year-old boy, have died and about 200 have been injured, according to Thai emergency services. Some of the worst skirmishes erupted late on Friday as soldiers and demonstrators exchanged fire.
A number of those killed yesterday died during an incident near the Dusit Thani hotel, a police colonel - whose wife is a Red Shirt protester - told The National on condition of anonymity. "It's crunch time," a spokesman for the Red Shirts, Sean Boonpracong, said. "Time for talking has ended, the government must now either accept the Red Shirt demands or take responsibility for the massacre and bloodshed that will result if the troops try to push us out."
The prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, yesterday defended the army's action against the Red Shirt protesters, saying there was no turning back. "The government must move forward. We cannot retreat because we are doing things that will benefit the entire country," Mr Abhisit said in a national broadcast. Soldiers opened fire on demonstrators, some of them armed or hurling Molotov cocktails, as plumes of black smoke billowed from burning tyres.
Three bodies were seen lying on the ground in the area where the military posted a sign declaring live ammunition was being used, according to an AFP photographer. The army warned it would move against the demonstrators' main rally site unless they disperse, but it gave no timetable for the action. Even in the face of the violence, the Red Shirts are increasingly defiant. "We are here to fight for justice, and we won't leave until we get it, even if it means dying for democracy," said Silpi Chairunlondain, a 48-year-old radio announcer from the Thai resort of Pattaya, visibly worried by the prospect of bloodshed.
"Thirty years ago my father died fighting corruption, and in his memory I cannot give up," she said. For nine weeks there has been a stand-off between tens of thousands of Red Shirts, controlling key parts of the capital city, and the security forces. The protesters are demanding that Mr Abhisit dissolve parliament immediately and call fresh elections. Most of the Red Shirts are poor farmers from the north and north-east and the Bangkok poor, who feel they have been cheated by the country's wealthy middle class and social elite.
Many of the Red Shirts, who form the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, support the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in September 2006. He fled Thailand some 20 months ago while on bail for corruption charges. "We are not Marxists or socialists," the Red Shirt leader Weng Tojirakarn told The National. "We are Buddhists who are committed to a fairer and more just society - in keeping with Buddha's teachings," he said. "Killing is unacceptable in our belief, even animals and insects. If Abhisit orders the troops in - then he will have more blood on his hands - he will certainly become the Pol Pot of Thailand."
All day yesterday there were small skirmishes between the soldiers and Red Shirts and the city is fast deteriorating into a major conflict zone. Piles of tyres burn, bellowing thick clouds of smoke into the air. The main public transport in the city's inner commercial and residential areas - the Sky Train and the Underground - have been completely suspended until further notice. Shopping centres and banking facilities also closed early. The city is under siege as thousands of soldiers patrol the perimeter of the protest site. The commercial centre of the city, occupied by the Red Shirts, has become a no-go area. The military have put up signs to prevent people entering the Red Shirt rally site. Although some have managed to make it through army checkpoints, they have had to register with the guards.
"This is unacceptable - a complete denial of our human rights," said Mr Weng. "The government is trying to prevent honest people who want to protest from joining us." The Red Shirt leaders fear that violence will erupt overnight as more Red Shirts from the north-east of the country, who are travelling down to join the protest, are stopped. Already there have been several clashes with soldiers as the Red Shirt reinforcements were halted. It can only get worse in the next 24 hours as thousands of Red Shirts try to break through the military cordon, said Mr Boonpracong.
For the several thousand still camped in the city's commercial hub, life is becoming increasingly difficult. There are neat piles of rubbish everywhere, beginning to smell badly as rubbish collections in the area were suspended a few days ago by the authorities. Electricity and water supplies have been cut off for more than two days. One leading Red Shirt, Kwanchai Praipana, admitted food supplies in particular were getting low after troops blocked protesters from bringing in food to those massing at the rally site.
"If this continues we will have to petition the UN to send in humanitarian relief supplies," Mr Boonpracong said. Mobile phone services at the centre of the rally have also been cut. But they are revived intermittently for the government to send SMS messages to the demonstrators at the rally site - warning the Red Shirts of the dire consequences of remaining there, but offering free transport home in cars, buses and trains if they leave the protest area and register with the soldiers. These messages have been sent to the protesters several times an evening over the last two weeks.
The prime minister has offered a road map to the protesters to end their occupation and hold elections as soon as possible, but this has been rejected by the Red Shirts. "There is only one solution now - Mr Abhisit and his deputy prime minister [who is in primary control of the country' security operations] must resign immediately and dissolve parliament," said Mr Weng. "After all these deaths he has lost control and has no option but to go," he said. "If he dissolves parliament, we will all go home tomorrow."
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse