Thailand shuts down second airport in capital
BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Thai authorities have closed a second airport in the capital after anti-government protesters stormed the terminal.
The country's main international airport has been closed since early Wednesday because of tens of thousands of protesters laying virtual siege on the terminal in their push for the government's resignation.
Serirat Prasutanont, chief of Thailand Airport Authority, says that the city's main domestic airport, Don Muang, was closed early Thursday as authorities feared that protesters might harm passengers and planes.
He said authorities are considering using an air force base outside Bangkok and have alerted all airports nationwide to be ready to receive more diverted flights.
The closure of Don Muang cuts off Bangkok completely to air traffic.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — A call by Thailand's powerful army commander to end the country's deepening political crisis was rebuffed Wednesday, as the prime minister rejected his suggestion to step down, and protesters refused to end their occupation of the country's main airport.
Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat justified his stance saying he came to power through elections and has "a job to protect democracy for the people of Thailand." He spoke from the northern city of Chiang Mai, a stronghold of government supporters.
His rejection of Army Gen. Anupong Paochinda's plan seemed to put him on a collision course with the military although the general has said he would not launch a coup.
The anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy insisted it would continue its airport occupation and other protest activities until Somchai resigns. It rejected the general's proposal for new elections, pushing instead for the appointment of a temporary government.
As the deadlock continued, political violence spread Wednesday to Chiang Mai, where government supporters attacked a radio station aligned with the protesters. Separately, there were unconfirmed reports that one man was killed and several people assaulted in an attack on the city's local airport.
However, it was the occupation of the international Suvarnabhumi Airport, just outside the capital Bangkok, that put the world on notice of the turmoil that has reduced Thailand to a dysfunctional nation.
European Union and Britain's Foreign Office both issued statements of concern about the political situation.
Thousands of travelers were stranded in Bangkok when members of the alliance swarmed the airport Tuesday night, forcing a halt to virtually all outgoing flights.
Several thousand passengers were bused to city hotels Wednesday to await developments, but many other passengers spent a second night at the airport after a day of behind-the-scenes negotiations failed. All flights have been suspended until further notice.
Among those stranded were Americans trying to get home for the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.
Cheryl Turner, 63, of Scottsdale, Arizona, had asked neighbors to pull an 18-pound turkey from her freezer a day ahead of time to defrost so she could cook it for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
"My turkey is sitting in the sink at home," she said.
Some travelers took the inconvenience in stride.
"It's really horrible to be delayed and I'm missing my friend and things, but the local people have given us food, offered us drinks, and the airport's actually quite a nice place at the moment," said Andy Du Bois-Barclay, an English traveler .
Protesters were also occupying late Wednesday the passenger terminal at the older and smaller Don Muang airport, which appeared to effectively cut off civilian aviation services to the Thai capital.
The protest alliance accuses Somchai of acting as the puppet for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a September 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law. Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law.
PAD, as the protest alliance is known, launched their current campaign on Aug. 26, with a failed attempt to take over a government television station, after which they stormed the grounds of the prime minister's office, which they continue to use as their stronghold.
The group has also tried twice to blockade Parliament, in one case setting off a daylong street battle with police that left two people dead and hundreds injured.
They prepared for their "final showdown" Sunday in an almost festive atmosphere at their Government House stronghold. Even as they pushed through police lines Monday to blockade parliament and the temporary government office at Don Muang airport, crowds remained relaxed as police yielded to them.
The situation soured Tuesday, with scattered violence between political rivals in different parts of Bangkok. At one point, government supporters threw rocks at a truckload of alliance members, who shot back with pistols and then chased and beat their attackers.
Skirmishes continued in several spots Tuesday night and Wednesday, leaving more than a dozen people hurt.
Their action came as the group's public support seemed to be waning and they appeared to be seeking out confrontations to up the ante in their struggle.
"It is no secret that the PAD are armed with guns, bombs, knives and wooden batons. They constantly break the law with impunity," said Ji Ungpakorn, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
In an open letter, he charged that the alliance, along with the military, the opposition Democrat Party and "the Conservative Establishment would rather see total chaos in Thailand rather than allow democracy to function."
In a televised press conference, Paochinda said, "the government should give the public a chance to decide in a fresh election."
However, he insisted he was not pressuring the government and ruled out staging a coup.
"We have considered every option including a coup, but it will not resolve the problem," he said. Government supporters have said they would forcefully resist a military takeover.
Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the protesters, said the group would not abide by the army chief's plea to leave the country's international airport or other occupied government facilities
"If the government does not quit, we will not quit," he said.
Late Wednesday night, in response to a petition by the state airport operator, Bangkok's Civil Court issued an injunction ordering the demonstrators to immediately leave Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The protesters have ignored similar orders, but the document provides a legal basis for security forces to remove them.
Airport director Serirat Prasutanont, who had tried to negotiate with the protesters to allow passengers to fly out, said the takeover "damaged Thailand's reputation and its economy beyond repair."
Tourist income during the high season — from late October to February — could slump to about half the expected $6.8 billion, said Kongkrit Hiranyakit, head of the Tourism Council of Thailand.The airport, the 18th-busiest in the world, handled over 40 million passengers in 2007
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