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Protester killed by gunfire in southern Thailand

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SUMETH PARNPETCH | September 1, 2013 07:39 AM EST | AP


HAT YAI, Thailand — One protester was killed by gunfire and another was seriously wounded Sunday at the site of a blockade in southern Thailand where rubber farmers have been protesting for more than a week against a steep decline in rubber prices.

It was not clear who was behind the shooting, which took place before dawn near a railway crossing the farmers have blocked along with a major road leading to Thailand's south.

A 29-year-old protester died after being shot in the head and a 25-year-old was wounded by two gunshots in the neck, said police Lt. Anant Panichkul.

Police said they believed the shooting stemmed from a quarrel that broke out among the protesters' own security guards.

"The information we have shows that every guard is a heavy drinker and all of them have a lot of weapons. They also fight every night," the police chief of Nakhon Si Thammarat province, Maj. Gen. Ronnapong Saikaew, told The Nation Channel television station.

A second possibility was that "maybe some villagers are not happy with the protest ... and the guards have been harassing people for money, and harassing women," the police chief said.

He denied rumors circulating among some of the protesters that authorities staged the attack in an effort to scare away the protesters.

Hundreds of rubber farmers have taken part in the protest in the Cha-uat district of Nakhon Si Thammarat, 580 kilometers (360 miles) south of Bangkok.

The farmers are calling for the government to guarantee the price of rubber to help increase their incomes. Rubber prices in Thailand have continually dropped since peaking in 2011 due to weaker demand in a sluggish global economy.

In negotiations in Bangkok last week, representatives of the farmers demanded the government fix a price of 120 baht ($3.70) per kilogram for rubber products, but the agriculture ministry made an offer of 80 baht ($2.50) per kilogram.

Thailand is the world's top producer and exporter of natural rubber, which is used in products from condoms to car tires. The government already subsidizes rice growers by paying them above-market prices, a scheme that has accumulated losses of at least $4 billion since its inception two years ago and resulted in Thailand losing its spot as world's No. 1 rice exporter.

The demonstrators have said groups of rubber farmers from other parts of the country will stage separate rallies on Monday.

At the site of Sunday's shooting, angry protesters blamed the government.

A protest representative, Iad Seng-iad, said that if the government had accepted the farmers' demands, the protest would have already ended and nobody would have died Sunday.

"The government must take sole responsibility," he said in a statement read to reporters in Cha-uat district. "Our brother who died was neither a thief nor a convict. He was a farmer in trouble."