Thai protesters defiant as police boost presence
By MICHAEL CASEY,Associated Press Writer AP - 2 hours 33 minutes ago
BANGKOK, Thailand - Thai security forces manned checkpoints around the country's main international airport Saturday and several ambulances lined up in anticipation of raids by police to oust thousands of protesters hunkered down there.
The likelihood of a violent confrontation still appeared high, as both protesters and police reinforced their presence at Suvarnabhumi international airport, seized Tuesday by the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy.
The group also has taken over a smaller, domestic airport in Bangkok and the prime minister's office.
Alliance leader Chamlong Srimuang attempted to rally supporters gathered in the prime minister's compound, 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."
The alliance is demanding the resignation of the government, which it accuses 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.
The capital remains cut off from all civilian air traffic, stranding thousands of travelers and dealing a severe blow to the economy and tourism industry.
More protesters arrived at Suvarnabhumi in cars and buses despite road blocks set up by police, boosting their number to several thousand. One of the main elevated roads into the airport is controlled by the alliance's guards who are manning their own checkpoint.
"Our stance is clear. We do not negotiate," said Parnthep Wongpuapan, an alliance spokesman. "If police try to break in, we definitely will defend ourselves."
Police, many in full riot gear, also had a much more visible presence, guarding an airport hotel and airport management offices, and assembling in a nearby administrative building. There appeared to be several hundred in the area.
But acting National 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."
In downtown Bangkok, about 20 soldiers _ unarmed but wearing flak jackets and carrying batons and shields _ were posted near Victory Monument, a roundabout that hosts a station of the city's elevated transit system.
A soldier who refused to give his name told The Associated Press the unit was sent out "to monitor the situation in case third parties and ill-intended people decide to get involved."
The Thai government on Thursday declared a state of emergency at Suvarnabhumi and at the smaller Don Muang domestic airport 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.
"Do not be concerned. The security forces will use peaceful means," Somchai said. "There will be negotiations and whatever else which is appropriate in the situation."
Government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kua said National Police Chief Gen. Pacharawat Wongsuwan was demoted to an inactive post in the prime minister's office.
Nattawut declined to comment on the order, issued by Somchai.
The airport takeover capped months of demonstrations that took a dramatic turn when the protest alliance seized the prime minister's office three months ago, virtually paralyzing the government.
Associated Press writer Mick Elmore contributed to this report.
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