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One dead as violence erupts in Bangkok

Thai “Red Shirt” protesters clashed with troops in the heart of the capital Thursday, leaving one dead and eight wounded, including a renegade general allied with the demonstrators.

Gunshots and a series of loud explosions were heard close to the Red Shirts’ sprawling encampment in the retail heart of the capital occupied by thousands of opposition protesters.

One red-shirted demonstrator was shot in the head, and appeared to have been killed, as troops opened fire on advancing protesters, according to an AFP reporter.

Police later confirmed that one person had died while emergency services reported that eight people had been injured in the latest violent clashes.

Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol, a key figure in the protest movement, was also shot in the head and seriously wounded while he was giving an interview to a newspaper journalist close to the protest hub.

Hours earlier the army had warned it would deploy snipers in the area around the rally site as part of a lockdown aimed at preventing more protesters entering.

One of Khattiya’s aides told AFP by telephone from the hospital that he was believed to have been shot by a sniper, but there was no confirmation.

The fiery general, accused by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of trying to prevent an end to the street demonstrations, has made no secret of encouraging the “Red Shirt” protesters to oppose a reconciliation deal.

“It’s important that I’m here. Everyone is here because Seh Daeng is here,” he told AFP earlier in the day during an interview within the protest site, using his own nickname.

Wearing grenade pins in his floppy jungle hat and a combat knife on his belt, Khattiya, 58, has been regularly seen inspecting Red Shirt guards at the protest site, which has been fortified with barricades made from razor wire, fuel-soaked tyres and sharpened bamboo spears.

The clashes came after the premier shelved a plan for November elections and hopes faded for a resolution to a crippling two-month crisis that has sparked periodic violence, leaving 30 people dead and about 1,000 injured.

An army spokesman had said earlier that troops would surround the rally site in the heart of Bangkok with armoured vehicles and that demonstrators would be allowed to leave but not enter the area.

“Snipers will be deployed in the operation,” said the spokesman, Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd.

Sunsern said soldiers would be authorised to use real bullets for warning shots, self-defence and against “armed terrorists,” although the government did not announce any immediate plan to forcibly disperse protesters.

An unsuccessful attempt by troops on April 10 to clear a different area in the capital’s historic district sparked fierce street fighting that left 25 people dead and hundreds wounded.

Defiant Red Shirts vowed no surrender, despite the shooting of Khattiya.

“If you think the shooting of Seh Daeng will scare leaders and make them not dare to take the stage, you are wrong,” one of the protest leaders, Jatuporn Prompan, said at the rally site.

“No matters what the weapons are, it means nothing to people who are calling for democracy like us. We will not leave here as losers.”

Bracing for possible unrest elsewhere in the capital, the government extended a state of emergency already in place for the capital and surrounding areas to 15 more provinces.

The United States closed its embassy in Bangkok close to the protest site, saying it was “very concerned” about the violence. The British embassy was also closed, while the Dutch mission suspended visa services.

The Reds say the government is undemocratic because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ousted elected allies of their hero, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was unseated in a 2006 coup.

Abhisit announced earlier he had ditched a plan to hold elections in mid-November under a peace plan aimed at ending the tense standoff because the protesters were refusing to disperse.

“I have told security officials to restore normality as soon as possible,” he said.

The mostly poor and working class Reds, who launched their campaign in mid-March for immediate elections, initially agreed to enter the process but efforts to reach a deal that would see them go home have since broken down.