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Thailand Tries To Quell Protests; Death Reported

Soldiers in Thailand fired into the air and used tear gas Monday in an effort to disperse mass demonstrations in the capital, Bangkok, after a state of emergency was declared to quell the anti-government protests. One person has been killed and dozens injured in clashes, according to reports.

One person was shot dead in fighting between the protesters and residents, Satit Wongnongtaey, an official at the prime minister's office, said on television. The Associated Press reported that at least 100 people had also been injured in the street demonstrations.

The clashes came after protesters, who are calling for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down, stormed the venue of a weekend summit of Asian leaders held in the southern city of Pattaya, forcing its cancellation.

Shopping malls and shops were closed and official celebrations for the Thai New Year were canceled. There were several confrontations at major intersections where protesters blocked traffic. In one such standoff, a line of troops fired above the heads of protesters and turned water cannons on the crowd near Victory Monument, a major Bangkok intersection, AP said.

The red-shirted demonstrators, who support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, say the current government is illegitimate. Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and Abhisit was installed after a subsequent pro-Thaksin government was forced from office by a court order after similar weeks-long protests in the capital paralyzed the country.

The political impasse has exposed deep divisions in Thai society, pitting the country's rural poor, many of whom have benefited from Thaksin's anti-poverty initiatives and are loyal to him, against the urban educated class that opposes him. Thaksin fled Thailand last year to avoid corruption charges, but even from abroad he continues to wield considerable influence over his supporters.

On Sunday night, Thaksin issue a stark message to his followers.

"Now that they have tanks on the streets, it is time for the people to come out in revolution," he said, adding that he would come back to Thailand "when it is necessary."

Abhisit has vowed to restore order using "the softest measures possible" to end the deadlock.

"All the work I am doing is not to create fear or put pressure or to harm any group of people. It's a step-by-step process to restore order and stop violence," Abhisit said on nationwide television.

The chief of Thailand's armed forces, Gen. Songkitti Jaggabatara, echoed the desire to use minimal force, saying his soldiers would use "every means to end the chaos" but employ weapons only for self-defense and not "excessively."

By late afternoon on Monday, many protesters were withdrawing to the area around the prime minister's office, where thousands have been encamped since March 26, AP reported.

On Saturday, at the meeting of the 16-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Pattaya, a mob of the red-shirted protesters smashed cars carrying Abhisit and his aides. The secretary-general of Abhisit's office, Niphon Promphan, was dragged from the car and beaten, suffering head injuries and broken ribs.

Thailand's tourism industry, already reeling from weeks of protests that helped topple the previous government and shut down the capital's ultramodern airport — a major Asian air hub — is likely to suffer further from the latest violence.

France, Britain, Australia, the United States, South Korea and the Philippines were among countries that issued travel advisories Monday, urging citizens to avoid trips to Thailand. Those already in Bangkok were urged to stay in their hotels and away from protests.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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