BANGKOK— At least 51 anti-government protesters were wounded in sevveral explosions early Sunday, raising fears of widening confrontations in a standoff that has strangled Thailand's economy and shut down its airports.
An injured anti-government protester is carried on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance after the bomb blast during a protest at government house in Bangkok, November 30, 2008. (Photo: AP)
The first blast went off inside Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's office compound, which protesters seized in August and have held ever since. At least 49 people were hurt, including nine who were hospitalized, said Surachet Sathitniramai at the Narenthorn Medical Center. He said four were in serious condition.
Suriyasai Katasiya, a spokesman for the protest group, said a grenade landed on the roof of a tent under which protesters were resting. It rolled down and fell to the ground before exploding, he said.
The demonstrators, who call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy, accuse the government of being a puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup and fled overseas to escape corruption charges.
The protesters overran Bangkok's international Suvarnabhumi airport Tuesday night as part of their campaign to force Somchai from office. They seized the Don Muang airport a day later, severing the capital from all commercial air traffic and virtually paralyzing the government.
The demonstrators say they will not leave until Somchai resigns, and have refused to enter any negotiations.
The closure of the airports has taken a heavy toll on Thailand's economy and reputation. According to Thai media reports, some 100,000 tourists are stranded, and schedules of airlines around the world have been disrupted.
Twenty-minutes after the compound attack, two more blasts rocked an anti-government television station but there were no injuries, Suriyasai said.
In another pre-dawn strike, an explosive device detonated on the road near the main entrance to Don Muang. Surachet and an Associated Press television cameraman said two people were wounded.
Police were unable to verify the accounts.
It was not immediately known who was behind the attacks.
The protest group has been attacked several times by small bombs and grenades, including a blast earlier this month that killed one person and wounded 29.
Deputy Prime Minister Olarn Chaipravat, who oversees economic affairs, said the number of foreign tourist arrivals next year was expected to fall by half to about 6 million, resulting in 1 million job losses in the crucial tourism industry.
The Federation of Thai Industries has estimated the takeover of the airports is costing the country $57 million to $85 million a day.
"The situation has gone from bad to worse, signaling that it (the government) is incompetent at ensuring peace and order," the Thai Chamber of Commerce said in a statement Saturday.
About 400 protesters, traveling in a convoy of cars from the occupied international airport, attacked a police checkpoint staffed by more than 100 officers Saturday. The perimeter, which was put in place earlier in the day, had raised expectations authorities were preparing for a raid to end the four-day-old siege.
But instead, the dramatic four-minute assault effectively broke the cordon around the airport.
The protesters, carrying metal rods and some guns, smashed windshields and threw what appeared to be firecrackers at the police. Video footage of the attack appeared to show a protester firing a handgun toward a police van filled with officers.
Police Col. Wuttipong Petchkumnerd said there were no injuries on either side.
"We left the area immediately because we did not want any confrontation," he told The Associated Press.
"The police are constantly provoked, which is why only senior policemen are armed. We do not want to use violence," he said. He said four police trucks were damaged.
So far security forces have only issued a warning to the protesters to leave. It was not clear if the assault will result in a changed strategy.
Earlier Saturday, police spokesman Maj. Gen. Amnuay Nimmano said the protesters would be told to leave the airports. If they did not, a deadline will be issued with another warning, "the last one before we take action," he said.