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Thai Government Concerned Over Rising Casualties, Blames Militias for Violence

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The Thai government has expressed concern over the rising toll from security operations in the capital Bangkok, and blames armed militias for the violence. At least 24 people have died since the government began efforts to clear anti-government protesters out of their camp in the city center.

Listen to Schearf's first live report:

Listen to Schearf's second live report:

Fighting continues sporadically on Saturday, with repeated explosions and gunfire heard from the protest zone in Bangkok.

Red-shirt protesters Saturday took over a key highway intersection on Bangkok's outskirts, and there were clashes at a city monument a few kilometers from their Rajaprasong camp site.

Diplomatic sources told VOA that Western embassies have been warned of possible grenade attacks on department stores, intended to draw security forces away from Rajaprasong.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn says while the government is worried about the casualties, security forces now face attack from armed red-shirt militias. And Thai television showed red shirts surrounding army trucks and forcibly removing the soldiers and taking their guns.

"We are very concerned and the operations will be adjusted as we face strong resistance from several groups of people attacking the checkpoints - it is very unusual to have groups of people with weapons attacking the check points. This is not a normal situation," he said.

At the Rajaprasong site Saturday speakers continued to attack the government over the violence.

A police officer at a hospital close to where red shirts rested said the two sides need to reopen talks.

The officer says the red shirts still want new elections and the lifting of the emergency security decree. The red shirt leaders hoped that after being arrested they could be granted bail. But many within the protest site fear the army will soon attack.

The international community has expressed concern about the situation. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on both sides to return to dialogue to "de-escalate the situation and resolve matters peacefully".

Panitan, the government spokesman, says the foreign minister will contact embassies to provide updates o the current situation. But he said it is a "domestic matter".

"We hope that they understand that this is a domestic matter," he said. "We hope not only [that] the international community understands, [but] that they will support us. This is a threat to our national security. This armed militia gunmen - it's a new phenomenon in the Thai politics."

The red shirts began their protest two months ago, demanding immediate elections because they consider the current government to be illegitimate.

Two weeks ago, the government offered a compromise that included November elections and it appeared the protest might end. However, talks fell apart over how several episodes of violence in April would be investigated.

Many red shirts support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006. He now lives overseas to avoid a prison sentence for corruption. Mr. Thaksin remains popular among the urban poor and working class, but the urban elite and middle class consider him corrupt.

The protests and violence are the worst political crisis in the country in 18 years and threaten to create broad instability in the country.


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