21 killed, hundreds injured

Both government and protesters mourned their dead Sunday after a night of savage street fighting that left 21 dead, but neither side appeared ready to compromise to end the political stalemate that has bedeviled Thailand for five years and threatens more violence.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Both government and protesters mourned their dead Sunday after a night of savage street fighting that left 21 dead, but neither side appeared ready to compromise to end the political stalemate that has bedeviled Thailand for five years and threatens more violence.

At least 874 others were injured when security forces tried to crack down Saturday on demonstrators who have been staging a month of disruptive protests in the Thai capital, seeking to have Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajva dissolve Parliament and call new elections.

It was the country’s worst political violence in nearly two decades.

Bullet casings, pools of blood and shattered army vehicles littered the streets near a main tourist area where soldiers had pitched nighttime battles with the protesters.

Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the “Red Shirt” protest movement — which contends the current government is illegitimate because it does not reflect the results of the last elections — said Abhisit’s hands were “bloodied” by the clashes.

“Red Shirts will never negotiate with murderers,” Jatuporn announced from a makeshift stage.

“Although the road is rough and full of obstacles, it’s our duty to honour the dead by bringing democracy to this country.”

The demonstrations are part of a long-running battle between the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006 military coup that removed him from power amid corruption allegations.

The protesters, called Red Shirts for their garb, see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of an elite impervious to the plight of Thailand’s poor and claim he took office illegitimately in December 2008 after the military pressured Parliament to vote for him.

“Within the next two weeks there will be more violence. The standpoint from both sides is clear — that negotiation and compromise will not happen,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “This fight will not end any time soon. It’s too complex.”

Dr. Tomas Larsson, a political scientist at Cambridge University, said concerns about Thailand’s international image could act as a restraint on a more violent crackdown.

“Quashing the protests with disproportionate force, along lines that we have come to associate with the military regime in Burma, would do irreparable damage to Thailand’s standing in the international community,” he said by email. “But I’m afraid cooler heads may not prevail in the coming days and weeks.”

Protesters held a procession for the dead Sunday near their rally site in historic Bangkok. Marching with Buddhist monks, they held aloft several coffins and carried photos of the victims. One mother called her son “a hero” before breaking down in tears.

Earlier, protesters showed off a pile of weapons they had captured from the troops, including rifles and heavy calibre machine-gun rounds. More than half a dozen military vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, Humvees and a truck were crippled by the protesters, who ripped the treads off the armoured cars.

Some of the heaviest fighting occurred near the backpacker mecca of Khao San Road, where protesters came in throngs Sunday to pose for pictures on top of seized army vehicles. Others strolled around in confiscated army riot gear.

Apichart Sankary, an executive with the Federation of Thai Tourism Associations, said that if street protests continue the number of foreign visitors could drop to 14.5 million this year, against an earlier projection of 15.5 million.

Four soldiers and 17 civilians were killed, according to the government’s Erawan emergency centre. It said at least 874 people were injured. The deaths included Japanese cameraman Hiro Muramoto, who worked for the Thomson Reuters news agency. In a statement, Reuters said he was shot in the chest and the circumstances of his death were under review.

Police spokesman Lt. Gen. Pongsapat Pongcharoen said an autopsy committee, which would include two Red Shirt members, was set up to examine corpses of those killed, including Muramoto.

———

Associated Press writers Grant Peck, Kinan Suchaovanich and Denis D. Gray contributed to this report.

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