PHUKET: Armed troops quelled a protest riot early today by local residents who surrounded and besieged a Phuket police station for 15 hours, breaking windows and burning nine cars.
Scenes more like a war zone greeted holidaymakers on the Thai island today with ''peace talks'' scheduled for 9am at the Phuket Provincial Hall in Phuket City.
Only with the intervention of troops at 3.30am did the angry villagers abandon their protest.
A detachment of soldiers from Army Circle 41 in Nakkon Si Thammarat, about five hours by road from Phuket, was persuasive in calming tempers.
After listening to the leader of the troops, Major General Theenajak Jindange, protesters headed for home.
Today the Airports of Thailand management at Phuket International Airport listed scores of passengers who missed flights because the main north-south thoroughfare on the island, Thepkasattri Road, was blocked by the protest.
Road blockades and mass protests at police stations are a traditional way of resolving issues when all else fails for Phuket villagers.
Last night's protest followed the deaths of two young men aged 17 and 22, killed earlier in the day when a motorcycle crashed during a police pursuit on the road to Ton Sai waterfall, a well-known tourist spot on the eastern side of Phuket.
The youths were suspected of being involved with drugs.
A protest to the police station by family and friends grew in scale as the afternoon wore on and at its height, about 500 people were estimated to have the building surrounded.
Police officers were forced to barricade the building and take shelter upstairs as windows were shattered.
Young men in the crowd, primed by alcohol and with their identities hidden under motorcycle helmets, then began torching cars in the carpark. At least nine cars were lit and destroyed.
Phuket, usually peaceful and relaxing for millions of holidaymakers each year, hasn't seen scenes like last night since residents razed a controversial $77 million tantalum factory to the ground in 1986.
The Thalang Police Station protest followed weeks of concern about how tourism could be affected by the haze from burning forests in Indonesia, which led to some delays and diversions.
The haze had mostly cleared by the weekend, with blue skies returning to the holiday island.
Now, with photographs making Phuket look like a war zone, tourism has a new and daunting image problem.
Except for those people caught in traffic going to and from the airport, most holidaymakers along the island's popular west coast would have been unaware of what was happening close to the centre of the island.
Talks are scheduled for 9am to gain a sense of the villagers' grievances.
When the military took charge in Thailand in May last year, one of their first actions was to arrest and charge the leaders of three street blockades that had occurred before the takeover.
The message was plain that traditional Phuket blockades, especially those negatively affecting tourism, were unacceptable.
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