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16 dead, 140 hurt as chaos, violence grip Thai capital

  • NEW: Hospitals say 16 people have been killed in Bangkok violence
  • Red Shirt leader "Seh Daeng" is hospitalized after being shot earlier
  • Government says troops are regaining control of downtown area

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) -- The bitter standoff between government troops and Red Shirt protesters in downtown Bangkok worsened Friday, the day after the wounding of a key protest leader aggravated the already deep tensions permeating the Thai capital.

Hospital officials reported 16 people died in confrontations Friday in Bangkok, an urban fortress under siege and beset by gunfire, tear gas and stone-throwing. That followed the death of one person Thursday.

The unrest boiled over after Thai authorities set a new deadline to seal off the Bangkok intersection where protesters have gathered by the thousands for the past month. In addition to the deaths, more than 140 people were wounded in the violence, including four non-Thais -- a Pole, a Canadian, a Liberian and a Myanmarese.

A government official said Thai forces were slowly getting control of the downtown area, with video footage showing soldiers shooting rounds toward the area with protesters. Among those wounded on Friday was a journalist from a French television station who was shot in the leg.

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Video: Dead, wounded in Bangkok
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The government said it was forced to take action after demonstrators disregarded an ultimatum by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to vacate the intersection by Wednesday.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, the acting government spokesman, said on Friday security forces who have been the objects of attacks have no choice but to respond.

He told reporters that forces have been dutifully following the rules of engagement, which allows them to use live ammunition to protect themselves and their comrades. He assured Bangkok residents and foreigners there that the forces have no intention of harming anyone.

The government, he said, is "very confident" it will be able to "stabilize the situation" and get it "under control very soon." Also, he said the prime minister is looking forward to working with others in hammering out reforms.

The United Front for Democracy, the formal name of the Red Shirt opposition, has been demanding that Abhisit dissolve the lower house of Parliament and call new elections. The Red Shirts support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless military coup.

Tensions ramped up when Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol -- a renegade general better known as Seh Daeng, which means Red Commander -- was shot and wounded by a sniper's bullet on Thursday, an action that left him in critical condition.

Seh Daeng was shot in the head while being interviewed by journalists in makeshift barricades set up by protesters. Thomas Fuller of The New York Times told CNN that the opposition leader was looking at him and answering questions when "the bullet hit him in the forehead, from what I could tell."

Reporter: Bullet 'felt like it grazed my head'

"It looks like the bullet came over my head and struck him. I don't have any way of confirming this beyond what I remember from the scene, but it felt like it grazed my head," he said.

Fuller, who said bamboo pikes and rubber tire barricades have been formed as a makeshift encampment by the protesters, said the opposition figure was facing out of the barricades and into Bangkok's business district of tall office buildings.

"He was standing in the same location for a while when I was talking to him but he was moving around, he was gesticulating," Fuller said. "He wasn't standing still, he was bobbing his head."

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Seh Daeng did not appear to be armed or have bodyguards, but was dressed in camouflage jacket and a floppy hat, Fuller said.

Seh Daeng is a controversial public figure, even within the protest movement, Fuller said. Some Thai opposition leaders see him as an impediment to a peaceful resolution to the political stalemate that has gripped Thai politics, the reporter said.

"He's a renegade in sort of all senses," Fuller said. "He's a renegade from the army, a hardliner within the protest movement. He told me today he thought they (other opposition leaders) were being cowardly and he wanted to carry on."