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Thai Protesters Defy Government Deadline as Clashes Continue

Areas of Bangkok Look Increasingly Like a War Zone, Bangkok, 17 May 2010
Areas of Bangkok Look Increasingly Like a War Zone, Bangkok, 17 May 2010

Thai protesters have defied a government deadline to leave their encampment in central Bangkok as the death toll from clashes with soldiers reaches 36, with more than 200 injured.

The Thai Red Cross is providing food to protesters and says it is prepared for massive casualties if the military tries to break up the camp.

Sporadic gunfire continues in the Thai capital as a government deadline for protesters to leave their camp by mid-afternoon came and went. Authorities say the protesters face two years in jail for defying the order, and again threatened to soon clear the protesters by force.

But that will not be easy.

About 5,000 protesters remain in the central commercial district they have occupied for more than two months, demanding that the government step down and call new elections.

Protesters Receive Food and Hygiene Kits from Red Cross, Bangkok, 17 May 2010
Protesters Receive Food and Hygiene Kits from Red Cross, Bangkok, 17 May 2010

The main protest stage is surrounded by shopping malls that have been closed for weeks.

At a nearby Buddhist temple, Thailand's Red Cross and Emergency Services passed out canned food and hygiene supplies to a long line of protesters.

Dr. Pichit Siriwan runs the Red Cross operation. He says the team brought only enough food for a few days and he worries what will happen if the government orders a crackdown.

"We have to prepare in case there is a major mass casualty," Pichit said. "We prepare for it. We prepare for that situation 24 hours a day."

The temple is inside the camp the protesters set up nine weeks ago, and it has become a refuge for women, children and the elderly.

An older woman waiting in line gives her nickname Ding and says she has been demonstrating for two months, but she does not want to leave.

But, the stress and fear that soldiers may at any time try to force them out shows.

The violence shaking the city began Thursday when a Thai general who supported the protesters was shot inside the protest camp, apparently by a sniper. He died Monday.

A couple of hundred meters from where he was shot near Bangkok's Lumpini Park, a young protester shows journalists several holes in a cement wall.

The wall and the bullet holes are on one side of the makeshift tent where they have been sleeping.

Protesters say snipers and soldiers are trying to kill them, while authorities say they only shoot in self defense.

Weng Tojirakarn is one of the protest leaders.

"You draw the deadline, it means you want to kill more, because you cannot end a political conflict this way," Weng said. "The only way in order to stop, to stop the political conflict is, you must have a dialogue, you must have a conversation, you must have a talk, not draw the deadline!"

But Weng says the protesters will only negotiate after the government agrees to pull back the troops. Government leaders, on the other hand, say they are done talking.