Armed Thai troops block business district from protesters

BANGKOK, Thailand — Thai troops armed with assault rifles moved into positions early Monday to block Bangkok’s prime business district from thousands of anti-government protesters who have threatened to enter.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Thai troops armed with assault rifles moved into positions early Monday to block Bangkok’s prime business district from thousands of anti-government protesters who have threatened to enter.

The government had earlier declared Silom Road, a thoroughfare studded with banks and office buildings, off-limits to the protesters who have camped in the capital’s main shopping district nearby for weeks.

Soldiers also patrolled the city’s most famous bar strip, Patpong Road, and an entertainment area for Japanese tourists, which are just off Silom. Some took positions atop buildings after searching for possible snipers.

As Thailand’s traditional New Year holiday ended, protest leaders had called for a mass rally Tuesday on Silom in their bid to oust Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. That has raised concerns of more clashes after savage fighting a week ago killed 25 people.

The military declared the city’s main shopping boulevard unsafe Sunday because of large crowds of anti-government protesters, and soldiers were sent to nearby high-rises to watch for any violence.

The warning by army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd was another blow for Thailand’s vital tourism sector, which accounts for 6 per cent of the economy and has steeply declined since the protests began March 12.

Sansern said military checkpoints were being set up at entry points to the capital and within Bangkok to try to prevent more “Red Shirt” protesters from reaching the main rally site. The area contains upscale shopping malls and five-star hotels that have been under virtual siege. At least six malls remain closed.

“The protest area is unsafe. Authorities need to control it by sending security personnel into the surrounding high-rise buildings,” Sansern told a news conference. He said soldiers would help “prevent people with ill intentions from infiltrating the area.”

The government accuses “terrorists” armed with guns and other weapons of orchestrating the earlier violence and says weapons were stolen from the military that have not been returned.

The protesters consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006.

The conflict has been characterized by some as class warfare, pitting the country’s vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power.

Meanwhile, the rival, establishment-backed “Yellow Shirt” protest movement vowed Sunday to take action against the government.