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Gun attack escalates tension in Thailand

THE founder of the protest movement that shut down Bangkok's airports last year was shot and wounded in an apparent assassination attempt yesterday, just days after troops quelled rioting by a rival, anti-government group in Thailand.

The government quickly moved to tighten security around Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who said a state of emergency that was imposed last Sunday in Bangkok would remain in place. Vehicles carrying Abhisit were attacked twice by red-shirted protesters before and during this week's riots.

The attack threatened to again escalate long-standing political tensions in Thailand, despite calls the day before for reconciliation from leaders on both sides of the conflict.

Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and supporter of the current government, was in stable condition after surgery that removed "small pieces of bullet" from his skull, according to Vajira Hospital director Chaiwan Charoenchoktawee. After the surgery, Sondhi was conscious and speaking and suffered no brain damage, he said.

Sondhi's People's Alliance for Democracy immediately said the attack was politically motivated, a claim that police said was under investigation.

The alliance - known as the "yellow shirts" - was behind protests last year to drive the allies of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power.

Those demonstrations, which paralyzed the government for months and occupied the capital's airports for a week, ended only after court rulings removed two Thaksin-allied governments, paving the way for Abhisit's rise in December.

But the rulings set off protests by the yellow shirts' rivals - the red shirts who are staunch supporters of Thaksin and argue Abhisit had no popular mandate to rule.

Their demonstrations came to a height in Bangkok earlier this week but were called off Tuesday after facing a major military crackdown.

The red shirts, who come largely from rural areas, have expressed anger that several of their leaders were arrested over the past week, while Sondhi and his allies were never prosecuted over last year's airport seizures, which stranded some 300,000 travelers.

Abhisit said yesterday that the Cabinet had decided not to revoke the emergency decree that was imposed last Sunday to control rioting in the capital. He said the decision was made after "looking at the overall picture" and that it was not a direct response to yesterday's attack.

Sondhi, who owns the TV channel ASTV, was being driven to work before dawn yesterday when at least two men in a pickup truck ambushed his car and opened fire with M-16 and AK-47 rifles, first aiming to shoot out the tires and then spraying the vehicle with bullets, said Bangkok police spokesman Suporn Pansua.


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