State of emergency extended in Thailand

April 19, 2009 11:33:19 AM PDT
Authorities on Sunday extended a state of emergency in Thailand's capital, saying efforts to restore security were still incomplete after anti-government rioting last week and a brazen attack on a protest leader. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with security agencies to discuss the potential for more protests, riots or attacks in Bangkok, government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.

Officials decided to retain the state of emergency because the situation is still "problematic, but as soon as things have calmed down, it will be lifted immediately," Panitan said.

"More and more, things are back to normal but there are still elements of concern," he said.

The emergency decree bans gatherings of more than five people, forbids news reports that threaten public order and allows the government to call up military troops to quell unrest.

In his weekly television address Sunday, Abhisit sought to ease tensions and defended his government's actions in deploying troops to quell the violent protests that had paralyzed the capital. Two people were killed and more than 130 injured during the unrest, which pitted angry protesters against soldiers and residents.

"What the government did was to restore peace for the benefit of all Thais. More importantly, it was to allow the government to continue working," Abhisit said.

"What I'd like to reiterate is that nobody has won and nobody has lost from the past events," he said.

The anti-government protesters, known as "red shirts," want former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to power.

Thaksin, who fled overseas to avoid a corruption conviction, was ousted by a 2006 military coup.

Police said six or seven men may have been involved in the pre-dawn attack Friday on Sondhi Limthongkul, an outspoken media tycoon and Thaksin opponent.

Police spokesman Maj. Gen. Suporn Pansua said investigators were studying a surveillance video taken from an intersection near the attack in an attempt to identify the assailants.

Video from the street surveillance camera showed two pickup trucks were following Sondhi's vehicle shortly before the shooting, he said.

The assailants opened fire at Sondhi's car with M-16 and AK-47 rifles, riddling the windshield with bullet holes and shattering the windows on one side. Sondhi was slightly injured, while his driver was seriously wounded and an aide in the car also was hurt.

Sondhi, a founder of the People's Alliance for Democracy, helped organize and lead rival "yellow-shirt" protesters who helped force Thaksin's ouster in 2006 and then drive his allies from power last year.

Sondhi's supporters come mainly from the middle class and educated elite of Thai society, and include royalists, academics and retired military. Thaksin's backers are mainly from the rural poor who like his social welfare programs.

Last year's "yellow-shirt" demonstrations, which paralyzed the government for months and occupied the capital's airports for a week, ended after court rulings removed two Thaksin-allied governments, paving the way for Abhisit's rise in December.

That prompted the protests by the "red-shirts," who say Abhisit has no popular mandate to rule. Their demonstrations drew up to 100,000 people in Bangkok two weeks ago and forced the cancellation of a regional summit.

The protest leaders called off the demonstrations last Tuesday after facing a major military crackdown.

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