Thai protesters back down after live fire threat

BANGKOK (AFP) – Thailand's anti-government protesters cancelled plans to march on Bangkok's financial hub Tuesday, as authorities warned they would face tear gas and live weapons fire in any fresh clashes.

Ten days after 25 people were killed and 800 injured in a failed attempt to dislodge the red-shirted demonstrators, the government said it was determined to end four weeks of rallies but would not give a date for the crackdown.

Thai office workers walk past armed soldiers in the Silom business district of Bangkok. AFP photo

The army also toughened its stance on the demonstrators who have paralysed parts of the capital and forced major shopping centres to close, wreaking havoc on the economy, and the tourism industry in particular.

"Security forces will begin by firing tear gas and if they cannot stop protesters, then soldiers will start taking decisive action with live bullets," army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said.

Sunsern targeted shadowy black-clad provocateurs accused of kicking off the April 10 violence, who have been disowned by both sides of Thailand's political divide, referring to them as "terrorists".

"We have received intelligence from the field that terrorists are armed with hand grenades, molotov cocktails and acid," he said after a meeting chaired by army chief Anupong Paojinda.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the deputy prime minister in charge of national security, also warned that the troops deployed in downtown Bangkok were equipped with weapons and live ammunition and were authorised to fire in self-defence.

"The government intends to enforce the law, but that does not mean it will happen today or tomorrow," he said of looming plans to shut down the movement.

"Everything will be carefully implemented to lessen damage... I cannot say when."

The Red Shirts, who are encamped in Bangkok's retail heartland, had threatened to march Tuesday to the nearby Silom financial district but were thwarted when armed troops and riot police descended Monday.

"Red Shirt protesters will not march into Silom Road because the government has already sent ten of thousands of armed soldiers to occupy the road," said leader Nattawut Saikuar.

The deployment saw rolls of razor wire rolled out along the financial strip, which is packed with bank headquarters and corporate towers, and knots of soldiers take up positions on overhead walkways.

Nattawut said the Reds would not make any alternative plans for a march, but would focus on bolstering numbers at their rally base which stretches along four kilometres (2.5 miles) of some of Bangkok's major thoroughfares.

"Before we go into the big battle we have to strengthen our own camp because the military will soon attack us," Nattawut said, adding that they expect the army to make its move some time before next Monday.

The crowds at the Reds' camp, a formidable logistical base that offers food, entertainment and facilities for washing and sleeping, have hit 100,000 in the past but dwindled Tuesday to 6,500 in a usual mid-week lull.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is resisting calls to stand down and announce fresh elections, said the government knows "the people are suffering" but added that it could not be rushed into taking action.

"Both the government and the people want this to end quickly but we have to think about many factors," he said on television late Monday. "We have to minimise the damage and do this effectively."

The protesters are mainly supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is now living in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

The Reds say that Abhisit's government is illegitimate because it came to power in a parliamentary vote, not a popular election, and that it is the tool of Thailand's palace, military and bureaucratic circles.

A rival faction, the elite-backed "Yellow Shirts", vowed Sunday to take action if the government fails to deal with the protesters within a week, raising fears of new clashes.

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