BANGKOK (AFP) — Thailand declared a state of emergency in Bangkok Tuesday, banning gatherings of more than five people in a bid to clamp down on anti-government protests that erupted into deadly clashes overnight.
The announcement came just hours after street fights broke out between thousands of supporters and opponents of embattled Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who has resisted mounting pressure to step down.
One person was killed and dozens injured in the violence near the main government complex occupied for a week by activists who want Samak to resign, claiming he is merely a puppet for ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
"Because last night there was unrest affecting the peaceful law and order in the country and obstructing the democratic process, the government has declared a state of emergency, which will affect people's individual freedoms," said the announcement read on state radio.
News of the declaration comes as Samak made a confident appearence after invoking the emergency decree, telling reporters he had done his duty as leader.
"I didn't sleep last night. I have carried out my duty," he said, adding that he would hold a press conference at the Thai army headquarters at 0200 GMT.
Samak appointed the powerful army commander General Anupong Paojinda to head a special team tasked with enforcing the emergency decree, with the national police chief and Bangkok's regional army commander as his deputies.
The announcement said Anupong now had the power to break up any gathering and to force people to leave any location.
"By invoking this emergency decree, Anupong can ban people from entering any specific place and can evacuate people from any specific place," it said.
Thai police called in army reinforcements early Tuesday to rein in the protests, setting nerves on edge in a country that has seen 18 military coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Thai television showed pro- and anti-government protesters wearing helmets and carrying batons running though the streets, fighting with each other and throwing rocks, as people lay bleeding on the street.
"Initial reports which need to be confirmed later are that one died and 38 were injured," said local government spokesman Peeratong Saichoew.
"There is a report that one person was injured from gun shots while the rest were injured from fighting," he said.
"Now they are being treated at six hospitals nearby."
Anti-government protesters from the so-called People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) stormed Samak's Government House complex one week ago, with thousands still squatting on the grounds.
The activists accuse Samak of acting on behalf of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile in Britain after the same protest group helped topple his government in 2006.
The protesters received a boost Monday when Thailand's biggest union called for a strike to add to the pressure on Samak, threatening to disrupt Bangkok's water and power supplies from Wednesday.
Tuesday's violence was the worst since the start of the campaign to oust Samak. No one was killed during months of protests against Thaksin in 2006 or in the coup that followed.
Thaksin was toppled by royalist generals in a military coup in 2006, and is now living in exile in Britain to avoid corruption charges at home.
But his allies still fill many top seats in government, and Samak won elections in December by campaigning as Thaksin's proxy.
PAD gathers most of its support from Bangkok's traditional elite and a portion of the middle class. Its leaders openly disparage the merit of votes cast by the nation's rural poor, who have thrown their support behind Thaksin and now Samak.
In addition to demanding that Samak resign, PAD wants an overhaul of Thailand's system of government, saying only 30 percent of seats in parliament should be elected, with the rest appointed.
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