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Protesters clash with police in Thailand, 1 dead

Thai protesters demanding the government resign clashed with police around Parliament Tuesday. At least one person was killed and more 350 people were injured.
Image: Thai anti-government protesters confront policemen in Bangkok
Thai anti-government protesters confront policemen in Bangkok on Tuesday.Pairoj / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thai protesters demanding the government resign set fire to cars and threw bottles and metal barricades at police, who used tear gas to break through their blockade around Parliament Tuesday. At least one person was killed and more 350 people were injured.

Unarmed military forces were deployed, an army spokesman said.

It was the most violent and widespread unrest in Thailand's six-week political crisis in which protesters have tried to force out supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the premier ousted in 2006 amid allegations of corruption.

Tensions began building Monday night when protesters surrounded Parliament, erecting barbed wire and tire barricades. They vowed to block Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from entering to deliver a policy statement to lawmakers Tuesday. Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law.

Escalating chaos
The violence erupted early in the morning when police first cleared the street outside Parliament so the prime minister and other lawmakers could enter. Rioting protesters set fire to parked cars, trucks and vans.

Clashes continued throughout the day, with police firing tear gas at protesters, who were armed with batons and slingshots and who threw bottles, metal barriers and firecrackers at police.

In the afternoon, riot police fired volleys of tear gas to break through the protesters' cordon so the lawmakers could leave.

Witnesses reported hearing gunshots throughout the day. Some police were armed with shotguns, and an AP Television News reporter saw at least three protesters carrying guns.

The street-fighting carried on after nightfall, with new clashes erupting outside the Bangkok police headquarters. Forces inside the compound fired tear gas to try to disperse the besieging mob.

1 dead, 358 injured
One woman was killed in the clashes, the director of a disaster coordination agency.

Surachet Sathitniramai of the Narenthorn Center said the woman, whom he did not identify, had chest injuries and one hand had been almost severed from her body when she was brought to a hospital.

About a mile from the fighting, a second person was killed when a Jeep SUV exploded near the headquarters of the Chart Thai Party, a member of Somchai's six-party coalition government. Police said they suspected a bomb caused the blast, but could provide no other details. It was not immediately clear whether the explosion was linked to the political violence.

A total of 358 people, mostly protesters, were injured. A few policemen were among those hurt, said police Lt. Thirapol Pokpong. An Associated Press reporter saw two police inside the parliamentary compound who had been shot by unknown assailants.

"We did not use any weapon other than tear gas and shields to clear the path for parliamentarians to go into the building," said deputy Bangkok police chief Maj. Gen. Umnuey Nimmanno. "It is conventional practice in dispersing a crowd. We did not use disproportionate force."

Thai media reported that Somchai sneaked out the back of Parliament to escape the mob by climbing over a fence.

The protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy have occupied the prime minister's office since late August.

A mixed system
The want Thailand to abandon the system of one-man, one-vote democracy, which they say gives too much power to the rural poor, whom they accuse of being susceptible to vote buying. Instead the alliance has proposed a mixed system in which some representatives are chosen by certain professions and social groups. They have not explained how exactly such a system would work or what would make it less susceptible to manipulation.

The same group was instrumental in 2006 ouster of Thaksin who lives in exile in London.

When protesters originally took over the grounds of the prime minister's office on Aug. 26, their intention was to oust then-Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej — whom they also accused of being a puppet of Thaksin. They later said they also opposed his successor, Somchai.

Somchai was sworn in as prime minister on Sept. 25 but has been forced to run the government from a makeshift office at Bangkok's airport.

He said he would not resign, dissolve parliament to call new elections, nor declare a state of emergency.

"I came in to do my job, so I will not quit working," he told reporters.

Somchai opened Tuesday's parliamentary session after a 90-minute delay and the chaos escalated outside the building as he spoke. Anti-government protesters regrouped and barricaded all four entrances to the Parliament, saying their goal was to block top officials from leaving the building. The opposition Democrat Party boycotted the speech.

After the parliamentary session ended, lawmakers said they were too afraid to leave the building. Hundreds of people had to wait in the parliamentary compound, which was dark and uncomfortable because the electricity had been cut off. The reason for the power failure was not clear, although the protesters took responsibility.

The chaos prompted Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to resign. Chavalit, who was in charge of security, was seen as a key figure in helping the government to resolve the crisis.

"What happened was partly my responsibility in failing to resolve the conflict," he said in his resignation letter.

The situation returned to relative calm Tuesday night, with most of the protesters returning to their stronghold at the prime minister's office.