Four killed as Thai police try to clear Bangkok protest sites

Crackdown on protest camps comes as anti-corruption panel charges prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra over controversial rice subsidy scheme.

Thai police officers react after an explosion during clashes with anti-government protesters near Government House in Bangkok on Tuesday. At least four people were as Thai authorities launched an operation to clear anti-government protesters from streets of the capital. Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters
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BANGKOK // Hundreds of riot police attempted to clear out anti-government protest sites around Thailand’s capital on Tuesday, triggering clashes that left at least four people dead and 64 others injured.

Multiple gunshots were heard near the prime minister’s offices, where riot police had started to remove protesters and dismantle a makeshift stage but it was not clear who was firing.

Erawan emergency medical services said three civilians and a police officer died and 64 others were injured in Tuesday’s clashes, including journalists working for Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV and the Spanish news agency EFE.

Department of Special Investigation chief Tharit Pengdit told a news conference that the protesters had launched grenades at the police. Police later withdrew.

In another blow to the government, the state anti-corruption agency charged prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Tuesday with improperly handling an expensive rice subsidy scheme, putting her in jeopardy of being impeached.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission said Ms Yingluck’s government proceeded with the scheme despite advice from experts that it was potentially wasteful and prone to corruption. The government has been months late in making payments to farmers for the rice they pledged to sell at above-market prices.

The commission said Ms Yingluck has been called to formally hear the charges on February 27. If it decides to submit the case to the Senate for possible impeachment, Ms Yingluck will immediately be suspended from performing her official duties pending a Senate trial.

Ms Yingluck’s elected government has been attempting to avoid violence to keep the military from stepping in. Thailand has been wracked by political unrest since 2006, when Ms Yingluck’s brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by a military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Since then, his supporters and opponents have vied for power, sometimes violently.

Tuesday’s violence erupted after police moved into several locations around the city to detain and remove protesters who have been camped out for weeks to press for Ms Yingluck’s resignation. The protesters want the formation of an unelected people’s council to implement reforms to end corruption and keep the Shinawatra family permanently out of politics.

They have blocked access to government offices since late last year and occupied key intersections around Bangkok for about a month. Until now, the police had refrained from dispersing them for fear of unleashing violence.

But on Monday, the government’s special security command centre announced it would reclaim five protest sites around the city for public use, a move made possible under a state of emergency declared in January. Thousands of police officers, including armed anti-riot squads, were deployed across the city on Tuesday in an operation the government called “Peace for Bangkok.”

Earlier Tuesday, 144 protesters near the Energy Ministry in the northern part of the city were peacefully detained and herded onto police lorries to be taken away for questioning, Mr Tharit said.

Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt said the protesters hijacked two of the city’s public buses and used them to block a rally site at the Interior Ministry near the Grand Palace.

The operations came a day before the Civil Court is to rule on the government’s invocation of the emergency decree, which allows authorities to exercise wide powers to detain protesters and hold them in custody for 30 days without charges.

If the decree is struck down by the court, the government will be forced to dismantle the special security command centre it had set up to enforce the emergency measures.

Since the protests began in November, at least 14 people have been killed and hundreds injured.

* Associated Press