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Friday April 17, 2009

Gunmen attack Thai 'yellow shirt' protest leader

BANGKOK: The founder of Thailand's "yellow shirt" protest movement that shut down Bangkok airports last year was shot and wounded in a drive-by attack Friday, just days after troops cracked down on rioting protesters from the rival, anti-government "red shirt" group.

Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and supporter of the current government who founded the People's Alliance for Democracy protest movement to oppose previous governments, was in stable condition after surgery that removed a bullet from his skull, said Vajira Hospital director Chaiwan Charoenchoktawee.

The government appeared rattled by the shooting and moved to tighten security around Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva whose vehicle was attacked twice by red-shirted protesters in the run-up to this week's riots.

Sondhi's alliance immediately labeled the attack politically motivated, a claim that police said was under investigation.

The red-shirt protesters have expressed anger that their leaders were arrested over the past week, while Sondhi and his allies were never prosecuted over last year's airport seizures.

In this handout photo made available by Asia Satellite Television, Sondhi Limthongkul, one of the founders of Thailand's Yellow Shirt movement, lies bleeding from head and shoulder wounds at a Bangkok, Thailand emergency room Friday, April 17, 2009. Limthongkul was being driven to work before dawn Friday when at least two men in a pickup truck ambushed his car and opened fire with an M-16 and an AK-47, first aiming to shoot out the tires and then spraying the vehicle with bullets, said police Maj. Gen. King Kwangvisetchaichai.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said that the attack "may effect" the duration of a state of emergency that was imposed Sunday in Bangkok to control the rioting.

"The government will also heighten security for the prime minister when he travels and we may not be able to disclose his plans and schedule as usual," Panitan said.

Sondhi, who owns the pro-government TV channel ASTV, was being driven to work before dawn Friday when at least two men in a pickup truck ambushed his car and opened fire with an M-16 and an AK-47, first aiming to shoot out the tires and then spraying the vehicle with bullets, said Bangkok police spokesman Suporn Pansua.

"Considering the nature of the attack and the weapons used, we believe it was carried out by people with expertise," Suporn said, adding that 84 bullet shells were found on the road near the attack in western Bangkok.

"We believe the attack was meant to take lives."

Television footage showed the car's windshield was riddled with bullets and side windows were shattered.

The driver of the car was seriously wounded and an aide traveling in the car also was wounded, he said.

Sondhi's People's Alliance for Democracy staged protests most of last year to demand that allies of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra resign from government.

His supporters come mainly from the middle class and educated elite of Thai society, and include royalists, academics and retired military.

Court rulings later ousted Thaksin-allied governments and dissolved their parties, paving the way for Abhisit to take control in Parliament in December.

The latest round of protests in Thailand have involved the red-shirted supporters of Thaksin, who say Abhisit has no popular mandate to rule.

The red-shirts, who largely come from rural areas, rioted in Bangkok earlier this week but called off the protests Tuesday after facing a major military crackdown.

The rioting revealed deep-seated anger among the poor in Thailand who say they feel discriminated against in Thai society.

They argue that security forces did nothing to crack down on the yellow-shirted royalist protesters who occupied Government House for three months last year and then seized Bangkok's two airports for a week, stranding some 300,000 travelers.

They also note that three of the red-shirted protest leaders faced prompt arrest and remain detained, while Sondhi and his allies were quickly released on bail and never prosecuted.

A spokesman for the yellow-shirted alliance, Panthep Poapongpan, called the attack politically motivated but stopped short of saying who he believed was behind the attack.

"It is quite clear that it was political," he said, adding that the attack "did not come as a surprise."

Sondhi regularly travels with bodyguards.

Police said an investigation was under way to determine the motive and they were looking into Sondhi's political enemies as well as business associates who could be linked to the attack.

The Thai capital remained under emergency rule on Friday for a sixth day.

A state of emergency was imposed Sunday a day after red-shirted protesters stormed a summit of Asian leaders outside Bangkok, prompting its cancellation and the evacuation of leaders by helicopter. - AP

Meanwhile ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra joined his political rivals in calling for reconciliation after the mob violence that bloodied Bangkok's streets, but some of his supporters refused to give up their struggle to topple Thailand's government.

Thaksin decried the violence that swept through the Thai capital earlier this week, when his followers and their allies clashed with soldiers, police and some city residents, leaving at least two people dead and more than 130 hurt.

Thaksin spoke to The Associated Press on Thursday in Dubai, where he is in self-imposed exile, just a few hours after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva also called on Thais to peacefully resolve their differences.

"War will never end by war, it has to end by negotiation," said Thaksin, who earlier had called on his supporters to stage a "revolution" for democracy.

"If the government wants to reconcile, I will encourage the 'red shirts' to participate," Thaksin said, referring to the garb his supporters wear to distinguish themselves from his critics, who wear yellow.

He said he wanted 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej to help mend the country's political fractures.

"I humbly urge his majesty to intervene ... that's the only solution," Thaksin said during a 20-minute interview.

The protests were the latest eruption in a long-simmering conflict set off by a 2006 coup that removed Thaksin from power.

His supporters largely come from rural areas, while their "yellow shirt" foes are a mix of the middle-class and ruling elite royalists, academics and retired military.

The urban forces contend that the rural poor are not educated enough to vote responsibly.

Thaksin's supporters accuse Abhisit's four-month-old government of taking power through parliamentary trickery and want new elections.

They accuse the country's elite of undermining democracy by interfering in politics, and some were in no mood to give up their demands.

"Thaksin is just a symbol ... I admire him but if he comes back and does bad things, we will get rid of him too," said Surasak Chaiyanond, 36, one of 200 people who went to the Bangkok Criminal Court to show support for red shirt leaders under arrest.

"It's not about him. It's about the people. I want to decide how this country is run," Surasak said.

The military ousted Thaksin, accusing him of corruption and abuse of power.

He had been prime minister since 2001, with his party winning two landslide victories. His support comes mainly from the country's poor majority, who laud his social welfare programs, including village development funds and virtually cost-free universal heath care.

Holding Thaksin responsible for the recent violence, the government increased the pressure on him Wednesday by announcing it revoked his passport.

Thaksin confirmed reports that he now has a Nicaraguan diplomatic passport but said he had not used it yet.

He said he was given "honorary citizenship by Nicaragua" and added he will keep traveling from one place to another.

Abroad at the time of the coup, he returned briefly to Thailand last year while his allies controlled the previous government but fled ahead of a corruption conviction.

Abhisit, speaking at a news conference, said his government was concerned about Thaksin's activities on foreign soil.

Thaksin delivers speeches to his followers by video links.

Abhisit said he had not yet decided when to revoke the emergency decree imposed in response to the violence, but also spoke of reconciliation.

"What activities incite people to break the law must be stopped," Abhisit said.

"If we can stop these, everything will return to normal. The process of reconciliation will follow quickly."

He said he will ask for a joint session of Parliament next week "so the government can listen to the opinions of members of both houses about the situation."

Though both leaders talked reconciliation, bridging the divide is unlikely to be easy.

"We are treated like second-class citizens," said Thaksin supporter Rattana Sintawong.

"It doesn't matter what Abhisit says, we will come back because his actions don't match his words." - AP

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