Muslim pilgrims bussed from blockaded airport

More than 450 Thai Muslims stranded at Bangkok’s besieged airport for four days have been bussed to a military base to board a plane for the hajj pilgrimage.

More than 450 Thai Muslims stranded at Bangkok’s besieged airport for four days have been bussed to a military base to board a plane for the hajj pilgrimage.

Senator Anusart Suwanmongkol said buses transported the pilgrims from Suvarnabhumi airport to the U-Tapao naval base today. From there, they are to fly on an Iran Air flight arranged by the Iranian Embassy to Saudi Arabia.

The pilgrims arrived in Bangkok from Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern provinces on Tuesday, hours before anti-government protesters took over Suvarnabhumi, forcing the country’s main gateway to shut down.

Thai Muslim leaders warned that a failure to assist the pilgrims could damage relations between predominantly Buddhist Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

Thousands of other travellers, including many Western holidaymakers, remain stranded.

Earlier at least 51 anti-government protesters were wounded in several explosions, raising fears of widening confrontations in a stand-off that has strangled Thailand’s economy and shut down its airports.

The first blast went off inside prime minister Somchai Wongsawat’s office compound, which protesters seized in August and have held ever since. At least 49 people were hurt, including nine who were taken to hospital, said Surachet Sathitniramai at the Narenthorn Medical Centre. He said four were in a serious condition.

Suriyasai Katasiya, a spokesman for the protest group, said a grenade landed on the roof of a tent under which protesters were resting and rolled down and fell to the ground before exploding.

The demonstrators, who call themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy, accuse the government of being a puppet of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup and fled overseas to escape corruption charges.

The protesters overran Bangkok’s international Suvarnabhumi airport on Tuesday as part of their campaign to force Mr Somchai from office. They seized the Don Muang airport a day later, severing the capital from all commercial air traffic and virtually paralysing the government.

The demonstrators say they will not leave until Mr Somchai resigns, and have refused to enter any negotiations.

The closure of the airports has taken a heavy toll on Thailand’s economy and reputation. According to Thai media reports, about 100,000 tourists are stranded, and schedules of airlines around the world have been disrupted.

Twenty-minutes after the compound attack, two more blasts rocked an anti-government television station but there were no injuries, Mr Suriyasai said.

In another pre-dawn strike, an explosive device detonated on the road near the main entrance to Don Muang, according to reports. Two people were wounded.

It was not immediately known who was behind the attacks.

The protest group has been attacked several times by small bombs and grenades, including a blast earlier this month that killed one person and wounded 29.

Deputy prime minister Olarn Chaipravat, who oversees economic affairs, said the number of foreign tourist arrivals next year was expected to fall by half to about six million, resulting in one million job losses in the crucial tourism industry.

The Federation of Thai Industries has estimated the takeover of the airports is costing the country £38-£56.5 million a day.

“The situation has gone from bad to worse, signalling that it (the government) is incompetent at ensuring peace and order,” the Thai Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.

About 400 protesters, travelling in a convoy of cars from the occupied international airport, attacked a police checkpoint staffed by more than 100 officers on Saturday. The perimeter, which was put in place earlier in the day, had raised expectations authorities were preparing for a raid to end the four-day-old siege.

But instead, the dramatic four-minute assault effectively broke the cordon around the airport.

The protesters, carrying metal rods and some guns, smashed windscreens and threw what appeared to be firecrackers at the police. Video footage of the attack appeared to show a protester firing a handgun towards a police van filled with officers.

Police Col Wuttipong Petchkumnerd said there were no injuries on either side.

“We left the area immediately because we did not want any confrontation,” he said.

“The police are constantly provoked, which is why only senior policemen are armed. We do not want to use violence.” He said four police trucks were damaged.

So far security forces have only issued a warning to the protesters to leave. It was not clear if the assault will result in a changed strategy.

Earlier, police spokesman Maj Gen Amnuay Nimmano said the protesters would be told to leave the airports. If they did not, a deadline would be issued with another warning, “the last one before we take action”, he said.

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