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Thai Soldiers Spray Gunfire, Tear Gas at Protests

Thai

BANGKOK -- The political unrest that seized the Thai capital on Monday claimed its first fatality in what the government described as an evening gunbattle between protesters and city residents enraged at their violent disruption.

The scuffle came after a day of clashes between the protesters - who are pressing for the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva- and thousands of troops across the city. Troops fired warning shots and tear gas at the demonstrators and finally forced most to retreat and regroup near their stronghold around the prime minister's offices.

For more than 12 hours, red-shirted protesters - most of whom are supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - and the soldiers locked in a series of running street battles across Bangkok that left at least 79 people injured.

Security forces had appeared to be pushing the protesters into a smaller area, but by late afternoon street fighting had broken out in several neighborhoods between normal citizens and the protesters.

But an early evening gunbattle at a market in one residential area near the prime minister's offices left one man dead, said Minister of the Prime Minister's Office Sathit Wongnongtoey.

Dr. Chatri Charoenchivakul of the official Erawan Emergency Coordination Center said the victim was shot in the chest and two other people were wounded by gunshots.

Malls and shops were shuttered and official celebrations for the Thai new year were canceled. More than a dozen countries, including the United States, issued travel warnings urging citizens to avoid trips to Thailand and for those already in Bangkok to stay in their hotels and away from the protests.

The violence threatens to slash tourism revenue and could lead to the loss of 200,000 jobs in the industry that directly employs about 2 million people, said Kongkrit Hiranyakit, chairman of the Tourism Council of Thailand.

It is also likely to give pause to foreign businesses considering building factories or making other investments - especially since it comes just months after a group of rival protesters occupied the capital's airports for a week, stranding thousands of tourists and businessmen and sending the economy into a tailspin.

Clashes erupted between protesters and residents in at least three areas earlier.

In a Muslim-dominated neighborhood on Phahon Yothin road, a clash between protesters and residents erupted. Hundreds of protesters threw objects at residents, burnt tires, went into the mosque and tried to set some food stalls in the area on fire. Residents came out with wooden sticks and a fight broke out.

In the evening, three women wearing red shirts were beaten up by at least six drunken men about a few kilometers from Government House, said Police Spokesman Col. Suporn Pansua.

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