BANGKOK (AP) — A renegade army general accused of leading a paramilitary force among Thailand’s Red Shirt protesters was shot in the head Thursday, apparently by a sniper, an aide said, after the government warned it would shoot “terrorists.”
In an interview with The Associated Press about 90 minutes before he was shot, Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol said he anticipated a military crackdown soon — as security forces moved to seal an area of central Bangkok which has been occupied by thousands of the protesters for weeks.
“It’s either dusk or dawn when the troops will go in,” he said. He was shot soon after night fell.
An aide who answered Khattiya’s mobile phone described the injury as “severe.” The AP called Khattiya’s phone after several gunshots and explosions were heard late Thursday from the vicinity of the Red Shirt’s redoubt in the upscale Rajprasong district.
“Seh Daeng was shot in the head,” said the aide, referring to Khattiya by his nickname. The aide hung up without identifying himself.
The government’s medical emergency center confirmed that Khattiya was shot in the head and admitted to the intensive care unit at a hospital.
It was not possible to verify the aide’s claim that Khattiya was shot by a sniper. Calls to police and army spokesmen seeking comment were not answered.
The Red Shirts, many from the rural poor, are demanding an immediate dissolution of Parliament. They believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s coalition government came to power illegitimately through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military.
Tens of thousands of them streamed into the capital on March 12 and occupied an area in the historic district of Bangkok. An army attempt to clear them on April 10 led to clashes that killed 25 people and wounded more than 800. Another four people were killed in related clashes in the following weeks.
Thursday’s shooting will only deepen fears of more bloodshed.
Khattiya is a renegade army major general whom the government has labeled a “terrorist” and a mastermind behind some of the violence.
He bitterly opposed reconciling with the government and had recently become critical of Red Shirt leaders, some of whom had wanted to accept a government proposal to end Thailand’s political crisis.
The firing came after the government said it will impose a military lockdown on the Rajprasong area to evict the protesters.
Khattiya, who helped construct the Red Shirt barricades of sharpened bamboo stakes and tires around the protest area, was accused of creating a paramilitary force among the anti-government protesters and had vowed to battle against the army if it should launch a crackdown.
In the AP interview, he accused Red Shirt leaders of taking government bribes to accept Abhisit’s reconciliation plan to hold elections on Nov. 14. However, the plan was abandoned after the Red Shirts made new demands and refused to leave.
“The prime minister and the Red Shirts were on the verge of striking a deal but then I came in. Suddenly, I became an important person,” he said.
“This time, the people’s army will fight the army. There is no need to teach the people how to fight. There are no forms or plan of attack. You let them fight with their own strategies,” he said.
Khattiya was suspended from the army in January and became a fugitive from justice last month after when an arrest warrant was issued against him and two dozen others linked to the Red Shirts for their purported roles in the violence. Yet he has wandered freely through the protest zone, signing autographs just yards (meters) from security forces keeping watch over the protesters.
Earlier Thursday, an army spokesman, Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, said security forces were preparing to impose a lockdown on the 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) area where the Red Shirts have barricaded themselves in a posh area of shopping malls, hotels and upscale apartments. A reporter for TNN television said electricity went out late Thursday.
Sansern said armored personnel carriers and snipers will surround the area. Power, public transport and mobile phone service in the area was also suspended.
Sansern said troops will use rubber bullets first but will not hesitate to use live ammunition in self-defense if attacked.
“In addition, another unit of … sharpshooters will be on the lookout and will shoot terrorists who carry weapons,” he said.
The Red Shirts see Abhisit’s government as serving an elite insensitive to the plight of most Thais. The protesters include many supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist leader accused of corruption and abuse of power and ousted in a 2006 military coup.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire who fled overseas to avoid a corruption conviction, is widely believed to be helping to bankroll the protests. He claims to be a victim of political persecution.