BANGKOK, January 17, 2014 (AFP) – A bomb attack wounded dozens of people at an opposition protest march in Thailand’s capital on Friday, sending tensions soaring following weeks of mass rallies aimed at overthrowing the government.
The kingdom has been periodically rocked by political bloodshed since former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago.
His sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, has faced more than two months of street demonstrations aimed at forcing her government from office and installing an unelected “people’s council”.
The authorities and the demonstrators both blamed each other for the blast, which was apparently caused by a grenade-type device thrown from a nearby building.
The anti-government movement said the explosion happened shortly before rally leader Suthep Thaugsuban was due to pass.
“The bomb went off about 30 metres (100 feet) from Suthep,” protest spokesman Akanat Promphan told AFP. “Then his bodyguards escorted him back to a rally stage.”
Television footage showed several people lying on the ground as ambulances rushed away the wounded. Protesters were seen searching nearby buildings for the attackers.
The city’s Erawan emergency centre said 31 people were hurt, including one with severe injuries.
Eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in street violence since the protests began.
Demonstrators, backed by the country’s royalist establishment, have occupied major intersections in the capital since Monday in what they have dubbed the “Bangkok shutdown”.
There have been a series of drive-by shootings at rally sites and grenade attacks on the houses of opposition politicians that both the demonstrators and the government have blamed on each other.
“Yingluck must take responsibility,” one of the protest leaders, Satit Wonghnongtaey, said on stage soon after the blast.
“This government, Yingluck and Red Shirt thugs are creating violence,” he said, referring to a rival pro-Thaksin protest movement whose rallies in 2010 were suppressed in a bloody military crackdown.
The government and the Red Shirts denied the claim, saying the protesters were trying to incite violence.
“A movement has been set up to create a situation of bomb attacks against leaders’ houses and protesters,” Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told reporters.
The government has urged police to detain rally leader Suthep, who faces an insurrection charge — in theory punishable by death — in connection with the protests.
Yingluck’s supporters fear the attacks aim to provoke another military or judicial coup to remove her from power.
The protests were triggered by a failed amnesty bill that could have allowed her brother Thaksin to return without going to jail for a past corruption conviction.
The demonstrators accuse the billionaire telecoms tycoon-turned-politician of controlling his sister’s government from his base in Dubai.
Thaksin has strong electoral support in northern Thailand, but he is reviled by many southerners, Bangkok’s middle class and members of the royalist establishment.
Yingluck has called an election for February 2 in an effort to defuse the deepening crisis but the main opposition Democrat Party is boycotting the polls, which they fear will only return the Shinawatra family to power.
“I think the election will be the answer,” Yingluck told foreign reporters on Friday before the blast, saying that her family was “one of the victims”.
“We just do our job. So that is why (an) election will be the only way to clear out our family,” she said.
Yingluck is also facing several legal moves which experts say could potentially bring down her government.
On Thursday the National Anti-Corruption Commission launched an investigation into possible negligence of duty by Yingluck in connection with a controversial subsidy scheme for rice farmers.