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Firing, blasts on eve of Thai polls

- Tension high as rival protesters clash

Bangkok, Feb. 1 (Reuters): Dozens of gunshots and at least two explosions raised tension amid anti-government protests in Thailand’s capital today, a day ahead of a general election seen as incapable of restoring stability in the deeply polarised country.

Six persons were wounded in front of a suburban shopping mall in the north of Bangkok. Gunmen among the crowds were seen hiding their weapons before backing away from the shooting.

Sporadic gunfire continued as the sun began to set, with masked men openly firing handguns. Security forces fired warning shots in the air with M-16s to allow at least a dozen protesters taking cover under an elevated highway to escape. “Authorities were able to control today's clashes quickly and the situation has improved now,” National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattantabutr said.

It was not immediately clear whether those wounded were the government’s supporters or its opponents, some of whom want to block ballotting in an election almost certain to return Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to power.

The violence came amid generally peaceful protests around Bangkok and revived chilling memories of political unrest in 2010, when supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, paralysed Bangkok to remove a government led by the Democrat Party.

More than 90 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded when current protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, at the time a deputy Prime Minister, sent in troops.

Today’s attack took place in Bangkok’s Laksi district, close to the Don Muang airport, a stronghold of Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party. Her supporters had gathered to demand tomorrow’s ballot not be obstructed.

Ten people have died and at least 577 have been wounded in politically related violence since late November.

The protesters took to the streets in November for the latest round of an eight-year conflict broadly between Bangkok’s middle class, southern Thais and the royalist establishment against the mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

Suthep has called for a peaceful blockade of roads, but at the same time has vowed not to stop people voting. “The people will not close the polling booths, but will demonstrate on the roads. They will demonstrate calmly, peacefully, without violence ... We won’t do anything that will hinder people from going to vote,” Suthep said last night.

Election Commission secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong said the commission has instructed staff to halt voting if there is rioting or other violence.

“We don’t want this election to be bloody. We can get every single agency involved to make this election happen, but if there’s blood, what’s the point?” Puchong said.

“If there is continued obstruction, I pray only that there is no fighting and no coup.”

The military has stayed firmly on the sidelines so far, in contrast to the past. It has a history of having staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years of on-off democracy.

 
 
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