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Violent protests shut down summit

ANTI-GOVERNMENT protesters stormed a building where leaders of Asian nations were to meet yesterday, prompting Thailand's government to cancel the summit and declare a state of emergency in the seaside city of Pattaya that was to host it.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has repeatedly refused to step down, went on national television and declared a state of emergency in the area surrounding the summit, but revoked it about six hours later after the leaders left safely.

The leaders were evacuated by helicopter from Pattaya to a nearby military airport, while some delegates were whisked away on navy boats.

Abhisit called the protesters "enemies of Thailand."

The red-shirted protesters, who are calling for the resignation of Vejjajiva, declared victory and walked away from the convention center.

"We have won. We have stopped them from holding a summit," Jakrapob Penkair, one of the protest leaders, said in the capital, Bangkok. "But we have not achieved our goal yet. We will continue to protest in Bangkok until Abhisit resigns."

More than 1,000 protesters smashed through the convention center's glass doors and ran through the building, overturning tables, blowing horns, waving Thai flags and screaming, "Abhisit get out!"

All the leaders were safe, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat. Nine leaders from Southeast Asian nations were in a nearby hotel on the convention grounds when the protesters broke in.

"The meeting cannot go on. We have to consider the security of the leaders," government spokesman Supachai Jaisamuth said. "The situation is too violent and it is a security concern for the leaders."

The chaos dealt a major blow to Abhisit, who has been trying to project calm and normality since taking power in a parliamentary vote four months ago after a court dissolved the previous government for election fraud.

It also scuttles a chance for the 16 regional leaders, including those from China, Japan and South Korea, to confer on ways to combat the global slump that has battered Asia's export-oriented economies.

The gathering today was to include Australia, New Zealand and India for the full-fledged East Asia Summit.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said he hoped the summit could be rescheduled within the next few months and warned protesters that "very tough standards will be applied to them very soon."

The summit started on Friday with a dinner among leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but fell apart as protesters blocked access to some delegates' hotels.

Asian leaders reacted with sympathy and dismay to the cancellation.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso called it "unfortunate" but an "inevitable result despite maximum efforts by the Thai government," said a spokesman. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was scheduled to attend today, expressed "deep regret" and called for calm.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd never made it out of his airplane, which was two hours into a seven-hour flight when the decision was made to divert and return home.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said it was doubtful that Thailand would be able to host a rescheduled Asia summit anytime soon.


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