Grenade dropped on government protesters in Bangkok
46 hurt at rally in occupied compound
BANGKOK - A grenade blast wounded 46 government protesters in Bangkok, hospital officials said yesterday, the latest escalation in the country's increasingly violent political crisis.
The blast occurred about midnight at Government House, where thousands of supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy were attending a rally. The group has occupied the prime minister's compound since August in a bid to unseat him.
A spokeswoman for Erawan Medical Center said at least 46 people had been wounded.
Channel 3 television showed footage of the wounded being rushed to hospital in pickup trucks. It said at least two people were in critical condition.
"I had come down from the stage about 30 minutes before the grenade dropped into a crowded area," PAD leader Suriyasai Katasila told the station.
He blamed government supporters for the attack, which occurred as the PAD's dramatic blockade of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport entered its fifth day.
During yesterday's confrontations at the airport, hundreds of protesters attacked through two police cordons intended to shut them off from supplies. In one attack, the protesters overran a police checkpoint staffed by about 150 riot police, who were forced to flee.
The sit-ins are being staged at Suvarnabhumi, and the city's old airport, Don Muang, which is now used for domestic flights. They are part of the "final battle" the PAD launched Monday to unseat Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.
The group accuses the prime minister of being a puppet of his brother-in-law, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.
Somchai, who has refused to quit, imposed emergency rule at the airports two days ago, but police have made no moves to evict the thousands of protesters.
Somchai effectively sacked his police chief on Friday, accusing him of mishandling the protests, Thai media said.
The unrest has paralyzed flights at both airports, stranded thousands of passengers, and sparked rumors of a military coup, even though the army chief has said he will not seize control.
In last night's clash at Suvarnabhumi, 150 police fled their checkpoint after they were attacked by PAD militants armed with iron rods and slingshots and hurling firecrackers.
The onslaught lasted 15 seconds but left the five-lane highway, the main access route to the $4 billion airport, littered with broken glass and discarded police helmets and truncheons.
Earlier, about 2,000 PAD members forced riot police to abandon another checkpoint near the airport. There was no violence, but one police officer was detained by PAD "security guards," the Nation newspaper reported on its website.
PAD supporters have vowed to "fight to the death," and youths armed with iron stakes manned barricades, scanning the horizon with binoculars for signs of police or progovernment gangs.
"If they come, we'll not open the door. If they shoot us, we'll shoot them back. We'll die if that makes the country better," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongul told supporters, the most explicit admission yet by the movement that they are armed.
The airport closures have crippled the tourism industry during the peak end-of-year season.
Deputy Prime Minister Olarn Chaipravat said the damage to Thailand's tourist image may cut arrivals by half in 2009 from an expected 13.5 million this year, and threaten one million jobs.
The government will spend $30 million over the next month to help stranded tourists, he told reporters, including giving them free hotel rooms and a daily stipend of $56.
The government is shuttling tourists to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 90 miles east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines, but travelers have complained of massive delays and confusion.
The crisis has increased pressure on the army to oust the prime minister, as they did Thaksin in 2006, after Somchai rejected military calls to quit this week.
But army chief Anupong Paochinda has said he would not take over, arguing that the military cannot heal fundamental political rifts between the Bangkok elite and middle classes, who despise Thaksin, and the poor rural and urban majority who love him.