The death toll from Thailand’s worst political violence in nearly two decades has risen to 20.
More than 800 people were also wounded in clashes between anti-government protesters known as the “red shirts”, and security forces.
The figures, given on Sunday by the Erawan Medical Centre, rose overnight although the fighting, some of it in Bangkok’s well-known tourist areas, had ended after the security forces pulled back late on Saturday and urged the red shirts to do the same.
Both sides have said they are trying to confirm the exact number of casualties from the street battle but the dead included of soldiers and civilians, including Hiro Muramoto, a 43-year-old Japanese cameraman for the Reuters news agency who was covering the protests.
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from in front of one of the red shirts’ encampments in the capital, said it was quiet on Sunday morning and so far there was no word on what either side would do following Saturday’s deadly clashes.
Not many troops were on the streets and some of the protesters were either sleeping or reflecting on the previous day’s violence, he added.
Fight to continue
|Al Jazeera speaks to both sides of the conflict|
But Sean Boonpracong, a spokesman for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, which is leading the protests, said the red shirts’ “morale is strong” and they would continue their fight to bring the government down.
“We are evaluating the situation and trying to organise a counterattack,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said protesters were “ready for negotiations if the government offers us something” but also said it was true that they were looking to “finish off” Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister, on Sunday.
“What he [Abhisit] did yesterday was unacceptable. He claims that he wants to handle this in peace but clearly what the army did was fire live bullets … what the prime minister said about the peaceful handing of the reds is simply not true,” Boonpracong said.
The spokesman added that the protesters’ original demands – that Abhisit resign and dissolve parliament in 15 days – had changed to “dissolution immediately and Abhisit must leave the country”.
But Abhisit, who has been holed up at an army barracks, said late on Saturday that he would not bow to his opponents’ demands.
“I and my government will continue to work to resolve the situation,” he said in a televised address to the nation.
Abhisit expressed regret to the families of the victims and said the army was only allowed to use live bullets when “firing into the air and in self-defence”.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a spokesman for the government, denied that soldiers were ordered to fire on the protesters.
“We believe the soldiers operated under the fixed orders of the government not to use live bullets, not to use weapons against the people,” he told Al Jazeera.
|Casualties were reported on both sides [AFP]|
“We are confident that the soldiers did not harm the people on the streets. Rather they have just riot-control gear and the tools to control the crowd.
“We are now asking for the investigation to begin … we would like to find the persons responsible for firing the live bullets … into the crowd,” he said, noting that “a lot” of soldiers had been injured and killed.
Urging demonstrators to follow the “rule of law”, he said: “We are confident that the security officers will be able to stabilise the situation.”
The government spokesman added that he believed soldiers – 28 according to other government officials – were “being held against their will” by the red shirts.
Boonpracong, the red shirts spokesman, would say only that five soldiers had been “softly detained without any type of cell structures”.
|Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay reports on the violence in Bangkok on Saturday|
“I talked to them … they are at heart, red,” he said, adding that one of the soldier’s even wore a red shirt, but said they had to do their duty. “We felt sorry for them,” Boonpracong said.
The red shirt spokesman’s comments highlight questions about the military and police force’s loyalty, since many of them come from the rural areas of Thailand, some of the same places that are strongholds of the red shirts.
But on Saturday, Thai troops heeded orders to move in on protesters to clear them from several areas in capital by nightfall.
The move set off hours of violent street fighting, with the military confronting protesters with rubber-coated bullets, live rounds and tear gas while the red shirts fought with guns, grenades and petrol bombs near the Phan Fah bridge and Rajdumnoen road in Bangkok’s old quarter, a base for the red shirts’ month-old protest.
Both times the government forces failed to clear the area and an afternoon offensive ended in a tense standoff with many people wounded.
As night fell, troops opened fire again with rubber bullets about 500m away at an intersection leading to the popular tourist area, Khao San road.
Shop and car windows on Khao San Road were shattered as many people lay wounded on the street.
After hours of violence on Saturday, Sansern Kaewkamnerd, an army spokesman, announced troops were withdrawing from the area.
|The violent street clashes lasted for hours on Saturday [GALLO/GETTY]|
“If this continues, if the army responds to the red shirts, violence will expand,” he said.
A red shirt leader later called on supporters to pull back as well.
Saturday’s violence was the worst in Bangkok since four dozen people were killed in a 1992 anti-military protest and Washington has urged both sides to show restraint.
“We deplore this outbreak of political violence in Thailand, our long-term friend and ally, and urge good faith negotiations by the parties to resolve outstanding issues through peaceful means,” Mike Hammer, a White House spokesman, said.
The Thai government said it had appointed a senior prime ministerial aide to make contact with red shirt leaders to try to find a way to halt the confrontations.
Tens of thousands of red shirts remain in Bangkok’s main shopping district, a stretch of upscale department stores and five-star hotels that has been held for a week by the mostly rural and working-class protesters who say they have been marginalised in a country with one of Asia’s widest rich-poor gap.
The “red shirts” have shown they have support among Bangkok’s poor but have angered the middle classes, many of whom regard them as misguided slaves to Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister ousted from power in a 2006 military coup, who is in exile to avoid a jail term for corruption.
The red shirts say Abhisit lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote following a court ruling that dissolved a pro-Thaksin ruling party.
They want immediate elections that Thaksin’s allies believe they are well placed to win.
spotted by RS