BANGKOK (Reuters) - A rogue Thai general leading a militant wing of anti-government protesters was shot in the head and critically wounded on Thursday, and a man was killed when the army used force to blockade a five-week street rally.
Khattiya Sawasdipol, a suspended army specialist in charge of security for thousands of demonstrators, was shot by an apparent sniper’s bullet to the temple and rushed to hospital, the state Narenthorn Emergency Medical Service said.
The shootings sparked half a dozen confrontations between rock-throwing protesters and armed security forces on the outskirts of the 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) commercial district where red-shirted protesters have barricaded themselves since April 3.
One protester was shot in the eye and died after a group of red shirts confronted soldiers armed with assault rifles next to a park in the Silom business district, witnesses said. Some protesters hurled rocks and troops fired in return.
Gun fire, explosions and sporadic fighting continued into the night around army checkpoints near the protesters’ encampment, protected by medieval-like walls made from tyres and wooden staves soaked in kerosene and topped by razor wire.
By 2:30 a.m. (8:30 p.m. BST), nine people were wounded, according to the Erawan Medical Centre. The military brought in armoured vehicles, shut down power in some areas at the protest site and cut some mobile phone services.
Khattiya, better known as “Seh Daeng” (Commander Red), was dubbed a “terrorist” by Thailand’s government, which accuses him of involvement in dozens of grenade attacks that have wounded more than 100 people.
But in recent days he was equally critical of other red shirt leaders, accusing them of embracing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s proposed “national reconciliation” which unravelled this week after protesters refused to leave the streets.
Several Thai and foreign reporters said Khattiya was shot as they interviewed him. He was answering a question about whether the Thai military would be able to penetrate the area.
It is unclear who shot him, though some security analysts suggested the army may have played a role. “It’s a clear attempt to decapitate the red shirt military leadership,” said Anthony Davis, a security consultant with IHS-Jane’s.
“It’s a smart tactical move that will cause confusion in the red shirts’ military ranks and send a message to the leadership that if they don’t want to negotiate and come out, they can expect extreme consequences.”
The shooting of Khattiya and the security cordon around the red shirt encampment mark the start of a violent crackdown in which the Thai government stands a good chance of clearing the streets, the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy said.
“But it will not end the polarisation that has led to the current instability — ensuring that the pressure from the red shirts will persist and that political volatility will remain a persistent problem for Thailand for the foreseeable future.”
Around the time of the shooting, a loud blast was heard, followed by bursts of automatic gunfire near the business district. Hours later, troops at a nearby park fired into the air as protesters tried to block their movement.
Abhisit is under enormous pressure to end the protests, which began with festive rallies on March 12 and descended into the deadliest political violence in 18 years in which 30 people have been killed and more than 1,400 wounded.
The crisis has paralysed parts of the capital, decimated tourism, pushed away foreign portfolio investors and slowed growth in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.
Foreign investors have sold $584 million in Thai shares in the past six sessions, cutting their net buying so far this year to $607.6 million in an emerging market seen at the start of the year as one of Asia’s most promising.
On Wednesday, Abhisit cancelled a proposed November 14 election and called off talks with the protesters, who broadly back former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and convicted of graft. He lives in self-exile, mostly in Dubai.
The 22-member red shirt leadership council has struggled to find consensus and appeared in disarray on Thursday night. Its chairman and several others have not been seen in days.
Former Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, chairman of the protesters’ parliamentary wing, the Puea Thai Party, called on the demonstrators to leave the upscale shopping district where about 20,000 had gathered earlier in the day.
Some hardliners such as Khattiya advocated stepping up the protests to win the fight once and for all. Many face criminal charges for defying an emergency decree and some, like Khattiya, face terrorism charges carrying a maximum penalty of death.
The protesters said this week they would only disperse if a deputy prime minister faces criminal charges over a deadly April 10 clash between troops and protesters.
The Cabinet on Thursday approved a state of emergency in 17 northern and northeastern provinces, which are red shirt strongholds, to prevent potential unrest.
Companies and embassies across the area, including the U.S. embassy, closed and activated back-up plans for Friday. Public transportation was diverted from the area.
Protest leaders pleaded over their radio station for people to come and reinforce the encampment and threatened to lay siege to Abhisit’s house and an infantry barracks where he has taken refuge if there was a crackdown.
Additional reporting by Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul and Jerry Lampen; Writing by Bill Tarrant and Jason Szep