Protesters Storm Thai Parliament; Lawmakers Rescued by Helicopter
"Red Shirt" protesters led by one of their hardcore leaders smashed through the Parliament compound gate with a truck and rushed to the second floor while Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and other lawmakers were still inside. But the protesters later withdrew from the building at the request of opposition lawmakers.
The government security agency, known as CAPO, sent a Black Hawk helicopter carrying five soldiers armed with M-16 rifles onto the Parliament helipad to pick up ministers and lawmakers trapped inside, the agency said in a statement. INN television said Suthep was among those evacuated.
The Red Shirts have been camped in Bangkok since March 12 and say they will continue protests until Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolves Parliament and calls new elections.
Abhisit, who left Parliament before the break-in to attend a scheduled meeting, has canceled a trip to Washington D.C. to attend an April 12-13 international nuclear summit, said an aide, Sirichoke Sopa.
The Red Shirts virtually have had the run of the city since Tuesday, when police and army troops made little effort to block them from triumphant, motorized rallies through central Bangkok.
The Red Shirt movement -- known formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship -- contends Abhisit came to power illegitimately in the years after ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed in a 2006 coup on corruption allegations. The group is made up largely of Thaksin supporters and pro-democracy activists who opposed the putsch.
In an incident reflecting unwillingness of security forces to get tough, a scuffle broke out between a lawmaker from a pro-Thaksin party and a soldier carrying an M-16.
The lawmaker shouted at the soldier, "This is the Parliament. Why are you carrying a gun!" and then chased the soldier out of the building where Red Shirts wrestled him to the ground and seized his rifle and a pistol. The protesters then turned the guns over to authorities.
The storming of the Parliament was led by Arisman Pongruengrong, one of the most radical protest leaders who last year orchestrated the take-over of a major conference, forcing the evacuation of Asian leaders by helicopters and boats.
Abhisit has been under pressure to use force to restore order. But on Tuesday, he defended his government's gentle approach against rowdy demonstrators who blocked major roads and pushed through lines of soldiers.
Abhisit said in a brief TV address that the government "eased our security measures to ensure that no confrontation would spiral out of control" and said the situation required "careful maneuvering."
Many Thai columnists and editorials on Wednesday questioned whether Abhisit was losing the weeks-old confrontation with the protesters and the crucial backing of the military and police. At least four former prime ministers planned to step into the fray in an attempt to negotiate an end to the crisis, state media reports said.
"If I were the prime minister, I would have got rid of those who would not carry out my orders," said a former head of the National Security Council, Prasong Soonsiri. He said there was strong support for the Red Shirts within the civil service and law enforcement agencies.
Local merchants have complained that the boisterous demonstrations have cost them billions of baht (millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near the site have been under virtual siege.
Thai authorities moved thousands of troops in riot gear Tuesday to confront the demonstrators at their encampment in the middle of Bangkok's tourist and shopping district. The protesters had been banned from 11 main streets, but they surged past lines of soldiers and police to parade raucously down several. A tide of red streamed through the Silom Road financial center, with horns blaring and loudspeakers playing the folk music of rural Thailand.
The English-language The Nation, said in Wednesday's front-page editorial, that Tuesday was "arguably the best day so far for the Red Shirts and definitely the worst day" for the prime minister.
"Also, for the first time, the prime minister must have started questioning the loyalty of the police and some in the military," the editorial said.
Charnvit Kasetsiri, one of the country's most prominent historians, called the situation "a game of brinkmanship."
"It's about who's going to blink or make the first mistake, and whoever makes the first mistake will inevitably lose," Charnvit said.
Political turmoil has increased in the years since the 2006 coup and deeply divided Thai society. The most striking aspect may be the sense of empowerment engendered in poor rural and city people, who have long been used to kowtowing to bureaucrats and more well-off countrymen.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Kinan Suchaovanich and Denis Gray contributed to this report.