El Al Redirects Bangkok Flights Away From Seething City

Israel's national carrier El Al suspended its flights to Bangkok on Wednesday, after protesters shut down the city's main airport in a major escalation of their four-month campaign to oust Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

El Al said that until further notice, all flights to Thailand will land in Pattaya Airport, some 200 kilometers north of the capital. A representative of the firm told Haaretz that the company will provide transportation to Bangkok for all its passengers.

With no resolution in sight at Bankok airport yesterday, hundreds of passengers were ushered down stairs and escalators to waiting buses for transportation to area hotels. Others sprawled across suitcases, luggage carts and even security conveyor belts in largely unsuccessful attempts to sleep.

As tempers rose, yellow-clad protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy, known as the PAD, distributed fliers trying to explain their action. "The People's Alliance apologizes for any inconvenience the closure of the Suvarnabhumi Airport may cause to the public and international visitors to the kingdom of Thailand. But the alliance believes the measure is crucial to bring an end to the traitorous killer government," the flier read.

Among those stranded at Suvarnabhumi was Moran Netef, 25, who was supposed to fly out of the country aboard a Qatar Airways flight yesterday, after spending more than a month in Thailand. "We saw them on the way in, and we were worried they might have guns," she said about the demonstrators who had taken control of the airport earlier.

It soon became clear that the protesters posed no danger to the tourists, she added. After a few fruitless hours at the airport, Netef made the trip back into the city. "We go out at night no problem, and there's really no cause for concern here," said another stranded tourist, Tzachi Hoffman.

Even if things do not get out of hand in Thailand, the stalemate between the protesters and the Thai prime minister could be an extended one. Yesterday, Wongsawat rejected his army chief's call to quit in the face of the anti-government protests, which according to the army "threaten to spiral out of control across the country."

The protesters, who are loyal to Thailand's deposed king, have been battling the government for six months now, with the worst clashes occuring on October 7, when two protesters were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between police and protesters. Previously, Thailand had enjoyed 16 years of relative calm since a violent coup in 1992. The 2006 coup that precipitated the current situation was bloodless.

David Lee Heyman, who returned from Bangkok yesterday aboard an El Al flight, described a more dramatic picture of the airport. "The general atmosphere was tense," he said. "There was a lot of movement by people who came and left by taxi, and when I reached the airport I saw some 30 police officers passing by, equipped with crowd dispersal gear."

Heyman says the officers were probably on their way to the terminal's second floor, where protesters attempted to break down a door and go out to the field itself. "By the time I had reached the El Al counter, the loudspeaker said we needed to get out of the terminal for our own safety."

When the El Al ground staff heard this, says Heyman, they urged the passengers to prepare everything for check-in, so they could make the flight before the airport was shut down. Meanwhile, staffers from other airlines were busy packing up their counters and leaving the terminal building.

After he completed check-in, Heyman says he looked around and inspected the airport. "There were a few people walking around in yellow shirts, but there seemed to be too few of them to really disrupt the airport," he recounted.

Thailand currently has anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 Israeli tourists staying in it, according to travel agencies. A flight leaves for Thailand - a preferred tourist destination for Israelis - from Ben Gurion Airport on an almost daily basis. But Israeli tourism to Thailand nonetheless declined this year, long before the airport riots broke out. The Israel Airports Authority reports that in October, the preferred traveling month for Israelis, only 12,427 left from Israel to Thailand - a 31 percent drop compared to the 18,035 travelers to Thailand in October 2007.

However, the number of Israelis who made the 11-hour trip to Thailand in 2007 and 2008 could be substantially higher, since many travel there with foreign airlines, primarily through Jordan, Turkey and Uzbekistan.