BANGKOK — Anti-government unrest boiling over in downtown Bangkok spread to other areas of the capital and Thailand on Sunday as the military defended its use of force in a crackdown that has left 30 civilians dead in four days. Thai leaders flatly rejected protesters' demands that the United Nations intercede to end the chaos.
Towering plumes of black smoke hung over city streets where protesters set fire to tires, fired homemade rockets and threw gasoline bombs at soldiers who used rubber bullets and live ammunition to pick off rioters who approached their lines. Army sharpshooters crouched behind sandbags carefully taking aim and firing to keep attackers at bay.
Leaders of the protesters, who have dubbed themselves Red Shirts, said they wanted talks mediated by the United Nations, provided the government agreed to an immediate cease-fire and pulled its troops back.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn, however, said a pause was unnecessary since troops were "not using weapons to crack down on civilians." The government maintains it is targeting only armed "terrorists" among the demonstrators.
Authorities insisted they would continue the crackdown aimed at choking off the Red Shirts, who have occupied a 1-square-mile protest zone — barricaded by tires and bamboo spikes — in one of Bangkok's ritziest areas since early April. The protesters are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva resign immediately, dissolve Parliament and call new elections.
The political conflict is Thailand's deadliest and most prolonged in decades, and each passing day of violence deepens divides in this nation of 65 million — a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. Thailand has long been considered a democratic oasis in Southeast Asia, and the unrest has shaken faith in its ability to restore and maintain stability.
Soldiers have encircled the core protest site and cut off utilities to the area. Protest leaders told women and children with them to move to a Buddhist temple compound.
The areas between the site and the military's perimeter have become a no-man's land where gunshots and blasts can regularly be heard.