British tourists have been warned to avoid travelling to Thailand as violent political protests erupted into running battles that resulted in the death of a soldier and left 18 wounded.
A Foreign Office advisory said there was a growing risk the confrontation would spread from Bangkok to other parts of the country after demonstrators vowed to resist security force efforts to disband the movement.
The advice said those already in Thailand should stay indoors and noted that opposition groups had threatened to unleash violence against the government forces.
“We advise against all but essential travel to all parts of Thailand. This advice reflects our concern that violence could break out during the increasingly volatile political crisis,” the warning said.
“British nationals should continue to exercise extreme caution throughout the country and avoid demonstrations and large gatherings.
“This advice reflects the increasing tension in Thailand and our concern that violent incidents of an unpredictable nature are occurring in many parts of Thailand.”
Shots were fired yesterday after opposition leaders instructed more than 2,000 followers to move to a nearby neighbouring province in a convoy of trucks and motorcycles.
By calling a rally elsewhere, the opposition hoped to test the government’s resolve. A confrontation broke out when pro-government forces interdicted the convoy.
The trooper was shot in the head during a confused incident when uniformed men on motorbikes drove through the Red Shirt ranks at the army and police lines.
The loyalties of members of the security forces are split between the two camps, with Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol, a renegade military leader, commanding the protester’s defences.
The renewed violence is the worst since a grenade attack on rival demonstrators left one person dead and scores wounded last week.
Travel agencies reported, however, that Britons were pressing ahead with trips to Thailand despite the threat.
Thomas Cook said holidaymakers were due to travel to Thailand up to and including Friday would be given the option to amend or cancel their holiday with a full refund.
“We are working closely with the Foreign Office and the Federation of Tour Operators to review the situation as it evolves and will continue to update customers accordingly,” a statement said.
Insurance industry bodies warned the advice would leave some travellers unprotected if they got caught up in violence.
Frances Tuke, a spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, said: “Some people are still wanting to go out to Thailand despite the FO advice.
“They should realise that should they decide to go, get caught up in an incident and get injured and have travelled knowing the Foreign Office advice, they will not be covered by insurance.”
Dennis and Janet Warner, a British couple last night complained they had been abandoned by a tour operator after they were caught up in the Bangkok violence “We were just left over there – we didn’t know what was going on because we weren’t told anything,” said Mr Warner. “It was supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime by in the end it turned out to be a nightmare.”
The United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, which is popularly known as the Red Shirt movement, is made up mainly of rural poor loyal to ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in 2006.
It has been protesting in Bangkok for seven weeks in a bid to bring down the government of Eton-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, which they regard as illegitimate. A series of bloody clashes has now left at least 27 dead.