(AFP) – Aug 29, 2008
BANGKOK (AFP) — Thai protesters scuffled with police Friday as tensions flared at the besieged Bangkok government compound, with signs of escalating turmoil in the kingdom testing the premier's peaceful resolve.
Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has so far kept his promise not to use violence to end the massive demonstrations demanding his resignation -- the biggest challenge to his authority since he took power seven months ago.
Up to 25,000 demonstrators have barricaded themselves in the government complex in the capital, accusing Samak of being a figurehead for ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra and insisting he must step down.
The anti-government campaign also appeared to be broadening, with protests forcing the temporary closure of three airports in popular tourist destinations in southern Thailand.
A small group of riot police forced their way into the grounds of Government House on Friday, while skirmishes broke out as police used shields and batons to prevent angry mobs from entering the compound, an AFP correspondent saw.
"Police will still adhere to my earlier order -- they merely went to post a court order, not to clear protesters," Samak told reporters, referring to a court injunction ordering protesters to vacate the site.
"I will not quit. At this moment, I will not declare emergency rule, I will wait and see tomorrow," he told reporters later Friday.
Deputy national police spokesman Major General Surapol Tuanthong said the crowds had swelled and 25,000 people were now in the grounds of the compound. He said no one was arrested, but two police officers were hurt in the scuffles.
As the situation spiralled Friday, the powerful army chief again reassured the nation that the military would not intervene unless asked.
"There will be no coup because a coup will not be able to solve the problems," General Anupong Paojinda told reporters, adding: "I am confident that police are able to oversee the situation."
Police, however, appeared to be struggling to contain the demonstrators, with Surapol telling AFP that all the officers who were stationed inside the compound had now withdrawn because of the risk of clashes.
"There are now up to three thousand police deployed outside Government House," Surapol said.
The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has been demonstrating against Samak for months, but events took a new turn on Tuesday when protesters stormed a TV station and barricaded themselves inside the Government House grounds.
The courts have ordered the protesters to leave the site and issued arrest warrants for nine of the ringleaders on charges including rebellion.
Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and key PAD leader, told protesters to prepare themselves for "judgement day."
"We will not let anyone control our fate. We will write our fate on our own," he told screaming crowds.
Outside Bangkok, thousands of protesters forced the closure of three airports in the south. Phuket International Airport was the first to shut its doors after PAD sympathisers invaded the runway.
Similar rallies soon prompted officials to close Hat Yai and Krabi airports.
"Officials are unable to operate," said Sereerat Prasutanont, president of government operator Airports of Thailand. "The duration of the closure will depend on how the situation develops."
The State Railways of Thailand said 248 drivers and mechanics called in sick on Friday, halting of a quarter of all services in the kingdom.
The PAD -- which despite its name is trying to bring down Samak's elected government -- began its campaign at the end of May, just over three months after the coalition government was formed.
PAD protests helped lead to the 2006 coup that unseated Thaksin, and the entry into government of his ally Samak has infuriated the country's old power elites in the military and palace.
They also object to Samak's plans to amend a constitution drafted and approved under military rule following the coup.
A poll Wednesday showed the majority of Bangkok residents were fed up with the protesters claiming loyalty to the revered monarchy.
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