By Grant Peck Associated Press
BANGKOK — At least five grenades exploded today in the center of Bangkok near a massive encampment of anti-government protesters, killing one person and wounding at least 70, sending panicked people running through the streets and fleeing an elevated train station.
The area of the explosions has been the site of a tense standoff between Red Shirt protesters, who are demanding Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva resign, and armed troops over the past several days.
More recently, a rival group of protesters has rallied in the area, occasionally hurling stones and insults at the Red Shirts, creating a volatile mix. Several of the blasts were near where the rivals have gathered, under the elevated tracks of a Skytrain station.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said in a speech broadcast tonight on all Thai channels that five M-79 grenades were fired from launchers within the Red Shirts’ encampment.
Three fell through the roof of the station, which runs above Silom Road, the center of Bangkok’s business district and also home to several strips of go-go bars. A fourth exploded on the pavement near the five-star Dusit Thani Hotel and the fifth near a bank, he said.
TV stations reported several more blasts. Previously, explosions at the site have been from fireworks.
The government’s Erawan emergency center said the blasts killed one person, identified as a Thai woman, and wounded at least 70.
The TPBS television network reported three foreigners were among the wounded. Associated Press reporters saw at least four people injured, two with serious wounds who were not moving.
The streets were full of people tending to the injured and carrying away bloodied people.
Suthep, who heads the government’s Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situation, expressed sorrow over the casualties. “The government has tried to set up measures to protect the people by sending security forces in to protect people,” he said.
He asked the people who had been protesting against the Red Shirts to leave the area for their own safety.
A Red Shirt protest leader denied the group had any involvement in the blasts. “The explosions had nothing to do with us,” said Weng Tojirakarn, who suggested the blame could lie with a variety of other groups, including the rival protesters, the government, the army or the police.
The Red Shirts, who believe Abhisit came to power illegitimately and are pushing for him to call elections immediately, have rallied in the streets for several weeks. On Thursday, the army warned that time was running out for the protesters to clear the streets, saying soldiers would crack down soon.
“To take people in Bangkok hostage is not right,” army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd warned the Red Shirts. “Your time to leave the area is running out.” The army has issued several warnings that it will move to break up the protests if they are not ended voluntarily. They are already in violation of several laws, including a state of emergency.
Prospects for a peaceful solution to the political crisis appear slim, and every night brings a new flurry of rumors of an imminent crackdown.
A failed April 10 attempt by security forces in Bangkok to flush protesters from their first encampment erupted into the worst political violence Thailand has seen in 18 years, with 25 people dead.
At the intersection where tonight’s blasts occurred, the Red Shirts have erected a formidable looking barrier of sharpened bamboo sticks and old tires atop which their guards perch. Behind the Red Shirts’ line is their redoubt, which extends for more than a mile up to another intersection, where tens of thousands of supporters gather around a stage to hear nearly nonstop speeches.
Across from the Red Shirt wall on Silom Road are several police trucks, dozens of police in riot gear, and a few hundred anti-Red Shirt demonstrators.
The anti-Red Shirt group includes office employees, middle class families, academics, some low-wage workers and members of the Yellow Shirts, a group that supports the current government and who themselves rampaged through Bangkok and seized the city’s airports two years ago.
While some are genuinely aggrieved by the inconveniences wrought by the protests, many seem to have primarily political objections to the Red Shirts, including claiming the movement is directed against the country’s widely revered monarch. A songsheet distributed to followers included hateful right-wing songs used in military-backed anti-communist campaigns of the 1970s.
Weng accused the government of hiring the mob in order to cause trouble that could be blamed on his group.
In one effort to avert further violence, the head of a pro-Red Shirt political party has asked for an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who in the past has stepped in to end violent political crises, the newspaper Matichon reported.
The ailing, 82-year-old king has been hospitalized since Sept. 19 and has made no comments on the current turmoil. In 1992, the king ended a bloody confrontation between the military and pro-democracy protesters by calling in leaders of the opposing sides and instructing them, on nationwide television, to cease hostilities.
Now, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a former prime minister who now heads the pro-Red Shirt Pheua Thai Party, is seeking a similar intervention.
The protesters consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 after months of demonstrations by the Yellow Shirts.
The Red Shirts believe Abhisit’s government is illegitimate because it came to power under military pressure through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments.