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1 dead as bullets fly in troubled Thai capital

THAI troops fired at crowds of anti-government protesters in Bangkok yesterday, and demonstrators fought back with firebombs and rocks, injuring 94 people and propelling Thailand deeper into political crisis.

One person was shot dead in fighting between the protesters and residents, Satit Wongnongtaey, a minister at the prime minister's office, said on television.

Near dusk, soldiers advanced into an area held by protesters near Government House, the prime minister's office, setting the stage for a final push to end demonstrations that have further hobbled a country still reeling from political chaos last year and the global financial crisis.

Hundreds of soldiers with riot police behind them lined up on two roads approaching Government House, where protesters who support exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and are known as the "red shirts" have been encamped since late March.

The army also set up roadblocks to stop demonstrators elsewhere from returning to the Government House area.

Preparing for conflict, protesters lit several city buses on fire to block the troops. One side of a government building was on fire, and a Thai television channel said it was caused by a firebomb. Black smoke billowed into the Bangkok sky.

Several thousand "red shirts" were still at Government House as night fell. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appeared on television urging people to leave and guaranteeing their safety. Abhisit had declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on Sunday.

The clashes came two days after "red shirt" protesters forced cancellation of a high-profile Asian summit in Thailand, a big embarrassment for Abhisit, whom they have been trying to oust. He took office in December.

Standard & Poor's and Moody's, which already have a negative outlook on Thailand's sovereign ratings, said yesterday that the renewed political unrest increased the risk of a downgrade.

"Tourism can rebound, but investor confidence will be very hard to get back," said S&P analyst Kim Eng Tan. "Going forward we expect investors will become a lot more risk averse."

Several countries issued travel advisories for Thailand.

"I believe the darkest days in Thailand's history are yet to come as we see no swift solution to ongoing divisiveness," said Prinn Panitchpakdi, a CLSA Asia-Pacific analyst.

Thaksin told CNN from an undisclosed location that people had died. "Many people are dying ... They even take the bodies on the military trucks and take them away," he said.

Thailand's Emergency Medical Institute said 94 people, including soldiers, were injured in yesterday's clashes, including 24 still hospitalized.


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