BANGKOK, Thailand — A rogue Thai general who helped anti-government protesters and was shot by an unidentified sniper died Monday from his wounds, raising fears of new violence after five days of street battles that have killed 36 people in downtown Bangkok.
Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, a renegade army officer accused of creating a paramilitary force for the Red Shirt protesters, died Monday of gunshot wounds, the Vajira Hospital reported. The death came five days after he was shot in the head by a sniper in downtown Bangkok while talking to journalists inside the perimeter of the protest zone.
The attack on Khattiya, more popularly known as Seh Daeng, triggered widespread street fighting between anti-government protesters and the army in central Bangkok.
“Seh Daeng has accomplished his duty. All of us here have the duty to carry on the quest for justice,” a Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said. He said that the only hope now to end the violence was intervention by Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The 82-year-old monarch, hospitalized since September, has remained publicly silent on the crisis unlike decades past when he stepped in to stop bloodshed.
The Red Shirts have been protesting since mid-March demanding the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the dissolution of Parliament and new elections.
Anti-government unrest that has boiled over in downtown Bangkok spread Sunday to other areas of the capital. The Thai military has defended its use of force, and the government flatly rejected protesters’ demands that the United Nations intercede to end the chaos.
Rapid gunfire and explosions echoed before dawn Monday outside luxury hotels bordering the barricaded protest zone, where the military has attempted to seal in thousands of demonstrators camping in the downtown streets. Guests at the upscale Dusit Thani hotel were rushed to the basement for safety, and the management Monday morning asked all guests to check out by noon.
Reporters at the scene said the gunfire came both from government forces and protesters holed up inside the encampment who appear to have stockpiled a sizable arsenal of weapons.
On Sunday, towering plumes of black smoke hung over city streets where protesters set fire to tires, fired homemade rockets and threw gasoline bombs at soldiers who used rubber bullets and live ammunition to pick off rioters who approached their lines. Army sharpshooters crouched behind sandbags carefully taking aim and firing to keep attackers at bay.
Leaders of the protesters, who have dubbed themselves Red Shirts, said they wanted talks mediated by the United Nations, provided the government agreed to an immediate cease-fire and pulled its troops back.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn, however, said a pause was unnecessary since troops were “not using weapons to crack down on civilians.” The government maintains it is targeting only armed “terrorists” among the demonstrators.
Authorities insisted they would continue the crackdown aimed at choking off the Red Shirts, who have occupied a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometre) protest zone — barricaded by tires and bamboo spikes — in one of Bangkok’s ritziest areas since early April.
The political conflict is Thailand’s deadliest and most prolonged in decades, and each passing day of violence deepens divides in this nation of 65 million — a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy. Thailand has long been considered a democratic oasis in Southeast Asia, and the unrest has shaken faith in its ability to restore and maintain stability.
Soldiers have encircled the core protest site and cut off utilities to the area. Protest leaders told women and children with them to move to a Buddhist temple compound within the zone.
The areas between the site and the military’s perimeter have become a no-man’s land where gunshots and blasts can regularly be heard. But some of the worst clashes Sunday were behind the military cordon — an indication the unrest was not contained within the protest area and was spreading.
In one working-class neighbourhood, several hundred demonstrators gathered under an expressway overpass and in small side streets, where they sheltered between clashes with nearby soldiers.
There were also reports of scattered unrest outside the capital, especially in northern and northeastern Thailand.
According to government figures, 65 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in March. The toll includes 36 killed, most of them civilians, and 266 wounded since Thursday in fighting that has turned parts of central Bangkok into a battleground.
The government’s casualty centre said one of the dead included an air force officer, killed Sunday night or early Monday. Earlier, the centre said an army officer had also been killed.
Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd held a nationally televised news conference late Sunday to defend the military’s use of force, showing images that appeared to show protesters firing guns and grenades at soldiers, and in one case trying to light the diesel tank of a government truck. He said the sharpshooters were there only to provide cover for security forces on the ground and were not shooting arbitrarily.
About 5,000 people are believed camped in the protest area, down from about 10,000 before fighting started Thursday. The violence ignited after the army started forming a cordon around the protesters’ encampment and a sniper shot and seriously wounded a Red Shirt leader, a former army general who was their military strategist.
The Red Shirts, many who hail from the impoverished north and northeast, say Abhisit’s coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it symbolizes a national elite indifferent to their plight.
Days of prolonged fighting and disruption to normal city life have taken their toll on Bangkok residents. Most shops, hotels and businesses near the protest area are shut and long lines formed at supermarkets outside the protest zone as people rushed to stock up on food. The city’s two mass transit trains remained closed Monday.
The government announced a public holiday in Bangkok on Monday and Tuesday. Schools are already closed for a week.
Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Jocelyn Gecker, Vijay Joshi and Chris Blake contributed to this report. Additional research by Warangkana Tempati and Sinfah Tunsarawuth.