26 Nov 2008

Thousands stranded as protest shuts Bangkok airport

11:28 pm on 26 November 2008

Thai protesters on Wednesday tightened their grip on Bangkok's international airport, where thousands of travellers have been stranded by anti-government demonstrations.

Suvarnabhum Airport was closed indefinitely after members of the opposition People's Alliance for Democracy took control of the building, disrupting the travel plans of an estimated 3,000 passengers, including at least four New Zealanders.

All flights were cancelled at the airport in the Thai capital, one of Asia's busiest gateways, as a sea of 8000 demonstrators loyal to the revered monarchy cheered on the protest leaders.

Thailand's army chief told the elected government on Wednesday to step down and call a snap election as a way out of a deepening political crisis.

Anupong Paochinda also told protesters to get out of the airport and cease their campaign. Earlier, protesters rejected a government offer of talks to end the stand-off.

There is speculation that the army chief may impose emergency rule. However, Mr Anupong has insisted many times he will not launch a coup only two years after the military's removal of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister, although he has publicly pressed Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to stand down.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said 561 New Zealanders are known to be in Thailand, but it is not known how many are in Bangkok. MFAT said four New Zealanders have contacted the embassy in Bangkok to say they were at the airport and consular staff were sent to provide assistance.

Grenade attacks elsewhere in the city deepened the sense of lawlessness after demonstrators stormed the airport on Tuesday night, dramatically escalating the six-month campaign against Mr Wongsawat.

The protesters said they would occupy the airport until Mr Somchai quit, adding that any airlines hoping to fly in our out had to seek their permission.

Control tower officials were sent home and authorities said the airport would remain closed until the end of the day at the earliest.

Angry travellers who spent the night sleeping on baggage carousels and at check-in desks complained that they had nothing to eat or drink since the protesters burst into terminal on Tuesday. Many said airport and airline staff had disappeared when the demonstrators arrived and police had done nothing to prevent the occupation.

Thai authorities on Wednesday began evacuating weary passengers from the airport, putting hundreds on buses back to the city.

Protesters say Mr Somchai's government is a corrupt proxy for ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who is exiled in Britain. Mr Somchai is due to return from a trip to the APEC summit in Peru on Wednesday night, but government officials said his flight would not land in Bangkok.

Travellers urged to take care

MFAT has not yet upgraded its warning to New Zealanders intending to travel to Thailand.

On Tuesday it warned New Zealanders in Thailand to avoid all political rallies, protests and demonstrations. This warning has not changed, but is being reviewed.

However, the Australian government is warning Australians in Thailand to exercise a high degree of caution, saying there is a "high threat" of a terrorist attack amid the escalating political crisis.

A spokesperson for Bangkok travel agency, Intrepid Travel, told Radio New Zealand that foreign passengers were being transported back to the city by bus.

Carl Needham said alternative accommodation is being arranged for customers unable to fly out of Bangkok.

New Zealand's House of Travel says it has at least 100 customers are scheduled to leave Bangkok over the next few days and about 300 are travelling in Thailand. The agency is trying to contact customers in Bangkok.

Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways on Wednesday cancelled flights to Bangkok. The airline said its service to Bangkok and Mumbai would bypass Thailand and fly straight to the Indian city.

Singapore Airlines says it will cancel all its flights to and from Bangkok but efforts will be made to reaccommodate customers on flights when security stabilises and flights resume.