Deadline looms for Bangkok's 'Red' protesters

BANGKOK (AFP) – Thai authorities vowed to clear a vast protest site in the capital "as soon as possible" as a deadline loomed Monday for opposition "Red Shirts" to leave after clashes that have left 35 people dead.

Among the fatalities was a renegade Thai general allied with the Reds who died in hospital on Monday, days after he was shot during an interview with a foreign reporter on the edge of the demonstrators' fortified encampment.

Thai "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters shoot a firework during demonstration in Bangkok on May 17, 2010. AFP photo

The escalating violence has turned parts of the city into no-go zones as troops use live ammunition against anti-government demonstrators, who have blocked streets with burning tyres and fought back with homemade weapons.

Protesters have been ordered to leave by 3:00 pm (0800 GMT) Monday, and a government minister signalled that authorities were preparing to move in.

"The operation (to disperse) will be executed as soon as possible," said Satit Wonghnongtaey, minister attached to the prime minister's office.

"CRES will explain to the public after the operation is completed," he told reporters, referring to the government unit set up to deal with the crisis.

"The authorities will do everything possible to inform (the Reds) to leave, including broadcast radio messages, police loudspeaker trucks and leaflets," Satit said.

Three times on television the government broadcast its warning for the thousands of demonstrators to evacuate their base in the Ratchaprasong upscale retail and hotel district in the heart of the city.

Those who stay face two years in prison, said the broadcast, warning also that their lives are at risk from "terrorist attack" at the rally site.

Thai authorities said Sunday they would send the Red Cross to an anti-government protest site in the capital, to help evacuate the area of women, children and the elderly who wanted to leave.

But there was no rush to leave the camp where men, children and women -- including a breast-feeding mother -- remained on Monday.

Behind a Red Shirt barricade on the edge of the camp, which extends for several kilometres, Vinit Virangtong, 43, dragged a suitcase deeper inside the danger zone.

"I'm staying here but I'm moving inside," he said. "The situation is now dangerous. They're shooting into here and it's not safe."

Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol, a key Red supporter known as Seh Daeng, died in hospital on Monday as the toll from three days of clashes between demonstrators and troops hit 35 dead, excluding the general, and 244 injured, officials said.

An official with Bangkok's emergency medical centre said two more people had died overnight, including a member of the military.

The government has ordered schools not to reopen after summer holidays, and it declared two days of national holidays to keep civilians off the streets.

Commuter train services were shut for the third straight day and large parts of the city -- including the Silom financial and entertainment district -- remained too risky to enter.

"Very dangerous," one soldier said Monday as small explosions sounded at his position, while other troops kept a Red blockade under surveillance through binoculars.

Early Monday, guests at a luxury hotel in the city of 12 million people were forced to shelter in the basement after the building came under gunfire and was rattled by an explosion on the fringes of the Red camp.

Fire gutted three commercial buildings in another area.

The Reds said Sunday they were ready to enter peace talks as long as the United Nations mediated but the government, which has repeatedly warned foreign governments not to meddle in its affairs, rejected the offer.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has shelved a plan to hold early elections -- which the Red Shirts initially agreed to -- because the protesters refused to disperse.

The Red Shirts consider the government illegitimate because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ruling ousted elected allies of their hero, telecoms tycoon turned former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Australia became the latest country to close its Bangkok embassy to visitors.

The crisis has now left 66 people dead, including Seh Daeng, and about 1,700 wounded. Twenty-five people died in a failed army crackdown on April 10.

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