As deaths surge, Thai leader defends crackdown on protest
BANGKOK -- Thailand's leader on Saturday defended the deadly army crackdown on protesters besieging the heart of the capital, saying that the country's future is at stake.
"I insist that what we are doing is necessary," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in remarks broadcast on national television. "We cannot retreat, because we are doing things that will benefit the entire country."
On Saturday, the protesters, known as "red shirts," directed a steady stream of rudimentary missiles at troops, who fired back in several areas around a key commercial district of Bangkok.
Army snipers with high-powered rifles were perched atop tall buildings. Below, thick black smoke billowed from tires set ablaze by demonstrators as gunfire rang out.
At least 24 people have been killed and more than 194 wounded in Bangkok since Thursday. In previous violence since the protest began in mid-March, 29 people were killed, and 1,640 were injured.
The increasing violence has raised concerns of sustained, widespread chaos in Thailand, a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia's most popular tourist destination.
"The situation right now is getting closer to a civil war each minute," Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, told reporters. "Please, don't ask us how we are going to end this situation, because we are the ones being killed."
Since Thursday, the once-bustling commercial and shopping district has become a war zone, with the red shirts firing weapons, throwing homemade explosives and hurling rocks at troops, who are firing live ammunition and rubber bullets.
The outburst of violence ignited after the army started forming a cordon around the protesters' encampment and a sniper shot and gravely wounded a rogue general reputed to be the red shirts' military adviser.
Thailand has a history of coups, with 18 since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. But the past week's events constitute the most prolonged and deadliest bout of political violence the nation has faced in decades.
Within a tire-and-bamboo-spike barricade, protesters have occupied 1-square-mile zone in one of the capital's ritziest areas, Rajprasong, for about two months to push their demands for Abhisit to resign, dissolve parliament and call new elections.
The crisis had appeared to be near a resolution last week, but hopes were dashed after red shirt leaders made more demands.
The political uncertainty has spooked foreign investors and damaged the tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy, Southeast Asia's second-largest.
Abhisit said the protesters have "held the people of Bangkok hostage," and he described them as "armed terrorists" who had attacked security forces. "Officers on duty have the right to defend themselves," he said.
The U.S. Embassy said it will evacuate staff members' relatives who want to leave Bangkok.
Embassy spokeswoman Cynthia Brown said the State Department has also issued a "travel warning advising all citizens to defer travel to Bangkok."
-- Associated Press