Thousands stranded as protesters seize Bangkok airport

Thai protesters on Wednesday tightened their hold on Bangkok airport, where two people were wounded in a blast and thousands of travellers left stranded by demonstrators vowing to topple the government.

Updated graphic on the anti-government demonstrations in Thailand. Thai protesters on Wednesday tightened their hold on Bangkok airport, where two people were wounded in a blast and thousands of travellers left stranded by demonstrators vowing to topple the government.(AFP/Graphic)

Two grenade attacks elsewhere in the capital deepened the sense of lawlessness after demonstrators stormed the airport Tuesday night, dramatically stepping up their campaign against Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

Suvarnabhumi Airport, a three-billion-dollar showpiece hub for travel throughout Southeast Asia, was closed down as guards from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement sealed off roads to the facility.

The PAD said it completely controlled the airport -- a pet project of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra that opened with great fanfare in 2006 -- and told airlines to apply directly to the group for landing rights.

"I have been informed by Thai Airways that 3,000 passengers are stranded at the terminal now," airport director Saereerat Prasutanont told AFP, adding that 78 outbound and incoming flights were affected .

"Protesters refused to negotiate with anyone except the prime minister."

Police said at least 8,000 demonstrators, wearing yellow clothes in a traditional symbol of loyalty to the revered monarchy, cheered on PAD leaders who gave speeches from a stage set up in the taxi drop-off area.

"It's not fair," said Vanessa Sloan, 31, from Florida, who was supposed to fly to the northern city of Chiang Mai on Wednesday.

"We spent the night here after all the check-in staff ran away. No one is here to help."

Dejected passengers surrounded by trolleys piled high with baggage were camping out near the check-in desks in the terminal, an AFP correspondent said.

The Australian government warned its citizens Wednesday to take extra precautions if planning to visit Thailand, while Singapore Airlines said it had cancelled its flights to and from Bangkok.

The PAD -- a loose coalition comprising royalists, Bangkok's old elite and the middle class -- is spreading chaos ahead of the prime minister's return from a foreign trip on Wednesday evening.

The alliance launched their campaign in May, accusing Somchai's government of being a corrupt puppet of his brother in law, former PM Thaksin, who was toppled in a 2006 coup and remains in exile to avoid corruption charges.

Senior PAD leader Chaiwat Sinswuwong said the movement had "completely taken control" of the airport.

"So any airline that wants to take off or land must seek permission from us directly," Chaiwat said.

The protesters had only allowed one flight to take off, a departure to Saudi Arabia for the Muslim hajj pilgrimage.

Support for PAD rallies has dropped in recent weeks, but its seizure of the airport leaves the government in a dilemma.

If it fails to act, Thailand's economy and tourism industry will be hit, risking the possibility of another military putsch to prevent further chaos.

But the government will also want to avoid a repeat of clashes between protesters and police on October 7 that left two people dead and nearly 500 injured.

The Thai government said it had asked the security forces for assistance and refused to rule out the possibility of emergency action.

"I cannot answer whether the government plans to declare a state of emergency or any other internal security act. It is under Prime Minister Somchai's consideration," government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar told AFP.

The government has been effectively paralysed since protesters occupied the prime minister's offices in central Bangkok in August, forcing Somchai to work from makeshift premises at Bangkok's old Don Mueang airport.

A grenade attack on demonstrators at Don Mueang wounded two early Wednesday, emergency services said. A near simultaneous blast at Suvarnabhumi, which reports said was a grenade fired at protesters, left another two injured.

Another three were hurt when two grenades were tossed into a crowd of pro-government supporters on a road to Don Mueang, the site of a clash between rival activists that left 11 hurt on Tuesday, police said.

Somchai has rejected calls to quit. His plane back from the APEC summit in Peru was due to land at an undisclosed location on Wednesday evening.

Source: AFP

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