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Thai troops battle protesters as crisis deepens

Thai troops battled anti-government protesters in central Bangkok on Friday, attempting to seal off their encampment after an assassination attempt on a renegade general unleashed a new wave of violence.

Troops fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds at protesters who hurled stones and launched home-made rockets on three roads surrounding the central Bangkok shopping district they have occupied for nearly six weeks, witnesses said. Troops said some protesters were armed.

Two people were killed in the clashes and at least 20 were wounded, including three journalists, since the fighting erupted Thursday night, according to hospitals and witnesses.

A Bangkok-based Canadian journalist working for France 24 television station was among the wounded, the station said. Two Thai journalists were also shot.

The army said it did not plan a crackdown on Friday on the main protest site where thousands of the red-shirted demonstrators, including women and children, have gathered, protected by medieval-like walls made from tires and wooden staves soaked in kerosene and topped by razor wire.

“We will allow protesters to leave the area today,” army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told reporters, adding that authorities were attempting to seal off the encampment, cut off their supplies and limit the crowd size.

Underlining concerns that some members of security forces may be sympathetic toward the red shirts, a Thai policeman fired bullets at soldiers while giving cover to a wounded protester, a Reuters witness said. A police spokesman denied that.

The crisis, in which 31 people have been killed and more than 1,400 wounded since April, has paralyzed parts of Bangkok, scared off investors and has begun to hit the wider economy.

Thousands of protesters remained defiant, singing along to live music on stage and calling for Abhisit to dissolve parliament immediately.

“Abhisit must take political responsibility. Otherwise, there will be more chaos,” one leader, Nattawut Saikua, told Reuters. Some protest leaders, including the movement's chairman, have not been seen at the site for several days.

The cost of insuring Thai debt jumped and Thai bond yields fell to a nine-month low as the wave of violence prompted investors to rush to the relative safety of government debt.

Five-year credit default swaps, used to hedge against debt default but also to speculate on country risk, widened by more than 30 basis points to 142 basis points.

Stocks fell 1.2%.

Protesters had formed their own checkpoint overnight at the famous Suan Lum night market to stop soldiers from sealing off roads around their main fortified encampment in Bangkok's commercial heart. That became one of the main battlegrounds, before troops took control.

Fighting has continued on other roads around the area where sporadic bursts of gunfires and blasts were heard.

They set fire to a bus, motorbike and tires as they retreated, and soldiers took control of an intersection leading to a road lined with hotels, the US ambassador's home and several embassies, which were closed and evacuated.

Troops fired rubber bullets into a nearby park after gunshots were heard, Thai television said.

Soldiers used tear gas and water cannon before dawn at the Nana intersection, packed with shops and racy go-go bars. Skirmishes flared in other parts of the city as the hard-line protest leaders vowed to fight to the death.

The latest violence followed tough security measures imposed on Thursday evening to reclaim Bangkok's commercial district after the collapse of a reconciliation plan proposed last week by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Abhisit is under enormous pressure to end the protests, which began with festive rallies on March 12 and descended into Thailand's deadliest political violence in 18 years.

The Thai government stands a good chance of clearing the streets, the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy said.

“But it will not end the polarization 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”.

It is unclear who shot the renegade major-general who has been in charge of security for thousands of protesters occupying a 3 sq-km stretch of central Bangkok since April 3.

Khattiya Sawasdipol, a suspended army specialist better known as “Seh Daeng” (Commander Red), was shot in the head, apparently by a sniper, while talking to reporters on Thursday evening.

He underwent brain surgery and was in critical condition.

He had been branded a terrorist by the Thai government, which accused him of involvement in dozens of grenade attacks.

But recently he was equally critical of some protest leaders, accusing them of embracing Abhisit's “reconciliation” plan which unraveled after protesters refused to leave the streets.

His shooting sparked half a dozen confrontations overnight between rock-throwing protesters and armed security forces.

Most businesses and embassies in the area have evacuated staff and were closed for the day. Apartment complexes were mostly empty after the government warned it would shut down power and water supplies, and landlords urged tenants to leave. (Reuters)