Thai protesters abduct police officer at airport
By CHRIS BLAKE,Associated Press Writer AP - 21 minutes ago
BANGKOK, Thailand - Anti-government protesters occupying Thailand's main airport abducted a policeman and pushed others back from a checkpoint Saturday, escalating tensions in a standoff that has virtually paralyzed the government.
The protesters, who have occupied the prime minister's compound since late August, upped the stakes this week by overrunning Bangkok's international and domestic aiports and bringing them to a halt in their campaign to oust the elected government.
The confrontation, severing the capital from civilian air traffic, 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.
At the international airport, Associated Press reporters saw one policeman being grabbed Saturday at a checkpoint by three protesters, forcibly put in a vehicle, and driven away toward areas controlled by the demonstrators. It was not immediately clear whether they intended to hold him hostage.
Police boosted their presence at the airport after the melee, with several hundred more officers arriving to set up road blocks.
The protesters, 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. Current Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat is Thaksin's brother-in-law.
Somchai's Cabinet, first blocked by protesters from the prime minister's offices and then sealed out of temporary quarters at the domestic airport, has fled to the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Travelers have been stranded in Bangkok since alliance members swarmed the international Suvarnabhumi airport late Tuesday. Some airlines are operating rescue flights out of the U-Tapao navy base, 140 kilometers (90 miles) south of Bangkok, to ferry stranded passengers out.
Some rich foreigners have chartered private flights out of U-Tapao, the Bangkok Post newspaper said.
The Federation of Thai Industries estimates the cost of lost trade due to the airport shutdowns at 2 to 3 billion baht ($57 million to $85 million) a day. Tourism industry, a key component of the Thai economy, is expected to loose 150 billion baht ($4.28 billion), equal to 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product.
Hundreds of additional protesters arrived at the international airport overnight and Saturday morning in a convoy of 100 vehicles, boosting their number to several thousand. Ambulances lined up in anticipation of raids by police.
In a bid to prevent more from pouring in, about 400 policemen accompanied by about 20 navy sailors armed with M-16 rifles set up a roadblock on the highway to the airport.
Tension also rose after a pro-government group expressed frustration at the continuing standoff and called for an indefinite sit-in, starting Sunday in central Bangkok.
"We are calling for our supporters nationwide to come out (for the rally). They have been told to bring their clothes and food because we will be here long," said Viphutalaeng Pattanaphumethai, a leader of the group, which in the past has clashed with the alliance.
Its members wear red shirts to distinguish themselves from the alliance, whose supporters wear yellow.
At the sprawling prime minister's compound, in the heart of Bangkok and occupied by the anti-government protesters, alliance leader Chamlong Srimuang attempted to rally supporters gathered there, accusing police of blockading the airport to deny protesters food and water.
"This is urgent. If you want to join us, go help our friends in Suvarnabhumi," Chamlong said in a speech televised on the anti-government television station ASTV. "We are going to encircle police when they try and shut our friends out from any help."
But acting National Police Chief Gen. Pateep Tanprasert insisted they would do everything they could to avert a crackdown on protesters.
"We are following the prime minister's instruction to end the crisis as soon as possible," Pateep said. "My strategy is also based on nonviolence. Currently, we are trying to open negotiations with protesters."
However, a member of the alliance said discussions were not on the agenda.
The Thai government on Thursday declared a state of emergency at Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports but has not taken any further firm steps. Its failure to end the airport closures has led to calls in the media for Somchai to step down, even from those who oppose the protesters.
In a brief televised speech Friday night, Somchai gave no clue as to when the deadlock might be resolved. He did, however, demote the national police chief amid speculation the two had policy disagreements.
Associated Press writer Mick Elmore contributed to this report.
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