A renegade Thai army general was shot in the head and a protester was killed yesterday as violence erupted in Bangkok when Thai soldiers advanced on the Red Shirts encampment. Major Gen Khattiya Sawasdiphol was shot during an interview with a reporter from The New York Times, according to the paper's website. The reporter said he heard a sound like a firecracker and the general fell to the ground in front of him. Late last night, his condition was described as serious.
A Red Shirt protester was also killed and three people were wounded as gunfire and explosions rocked the Thai capital's business area, according to Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. The US and British embassies announced they would close down operations today because of the violence. Less than two hours before he was shot, Gen Khattiya told the Associated Press he expected a clampdown soon as security forces moved to cordon off central Bangkok, which has been occupied by thousands of Red Shirts for weeks. Earlier yesterday, the military had warned it would shoot armed "terrorists" as it announced a massive operation to remove the protesters from the upscale Rajprasong shopping district.
"It's either dusk or dawn when the troops will go in," Gen Khattiya said. The general was shot soon after nightfall. "Seh Daeng was shot in the head," said an aide who answered the general's phone, referring to Gen Khattiya by his nickname. The aide hung up without identifying himself. The government health authorities confirmed that Gen Khattiya was shot in the head and said he was in intensive care at a medical centre. It was not possible to verify the aide's claim that Khattiya was shot by a sniper.
Gen Khattiya enjoys a cult following among some Red Shirts and soldiers, but had been dubbed a "terrorist" by Thailand's government, which accused him of involvement in dozens of grenade attacks that have injured more than 100 people. Anthony Davies, a security consultant with IHS-Jane's, said: "It's a clear attempt to decapitate the Red Shirt military leadership. It's a smart tactical move that will cause confusion in the Red Shirts' military ranks and send a message to the leadership that if they don't want to negotiate and come out, they can expect extreme consequences."
Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister, has faced enormous pressure to end the two-month standoff that has killed 29 people and wounded more than 1,000. Many of the Red Shirts are the rural poor but the movement has broadened into a political protest against the Bangkok elite even though some of its members actually are from the Bangkok elite. The majority of Red Shirts are supporters of the deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and they want Mr Abhisit to dissolve parliament and call new elections.
Tens of thousands of them stormed into the capital on March 12 and occupied an area in the historic district of Bangkok. An army attempt to clear them on April 10 led to clashes that killed 25 people and wounded more than 800. Another four people were killed in related clashes in the following weeks. Yesterday's shooting will only deepen fears of more bloodshed. Gen Khattiya is a former special forces commander, and his public support of the Red Shirts made him marginal to the military establishment as a whole. When he declared his support in 2008, he was removed from operations and reassigned as an aerobics instructor.
"The army chief wants me to be a presenter leading aerobics dancers," he said at the time. "I have prepared one dance. It's called the 'throwing-a-hand-grenade' dance." He bitterly opposed reconciling with the government and had recently become critical of Red Shirt leaders, some of whom had wanted to accept a government proposal to end Thailand's political crisis. Gen Khattiya, who helped construct the Red Shirt barricades of sharpened bamboo stakes and tyres around the protest area, was accused of creating a paramilitary force among the anti-government protesters and had promised to battle against the army if it should launch a clampdown.
In the AP interview, he accused Red Shirt leaders of taking government bribes to accept Mr Abhisit's reconciliation plan to hold elections on November 14. However, the plan was abandoned after the Red Shirts made new demands and refused to leave. "This time, the people's army will fight the army. There is no need to teach the people how to fight. There are no forms or plan of attack. You let them fight with their own strategies," he said.
Gen Khattiya was suspended from the army in January and became a fugitive from justice last month after when an arrest warrant was issued against him and two dozen others linked to the Red Shirts for their purported roles in the violence. Yet he has wandered freely through the protest zone, signing autographs just metres from security forces keeping watch over the protesters. "The prime minister and the Red Shirts were on the verge of striking a deal but then I came in. Suddenly, I became an important person," he said.
* With reporting by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters