BANGKOK (AP) - Downtown Bangkok turned into a flaming
battleground Wednesday as an army assault toppled the Red Shirt
protest leadership, enraging followers who fired grenades and set
numerous fires that cloaked the skyline in a black haze.
Using live ammunition, troops dispersed thousands of
anti-government protesters who had been camped in the capital's
premier shopping and residential district for weeks. Four
protesters and an Italian news photographer were killed in the
ensuing gunbattles and about 60 wounded.
After Red Shirt leaders gave themselves up to police, rioters
set fires at the Stock Exchange, several banks, the headquarters of
the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, the high-end Central World
shopping mall and a cinema complex that collapsed. Thick smoke
drifted across the sky of this city of 10 million people.
The government declared a nighttime curfew in Bangkok, and said
army operations would continue through the night. An announcement
signed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and broadcast on
television said nobody in the capital was allowed out of their
homes from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m unless they have permission from
Protesters also turned their rage on the local media, which they
have accused of pro-government coverage. They attacked the offices
of state-run Channel 3, setting fire to cars outside and puncturing
water pipes that flooded the building.
"At Channel 3 need urgent help from police, soldiers!!!"
tweeted news anchor Patcharasri Benjamasa. "News cars were smashed
and they are about to invade the building."
Hours later its building was on fire. Its executives were
evacuated by helicopter. Other staff escaped on foot.
The English-language Bangkok Post newspaper evacuated its staff
after threats from the Red Shirts. A large office building down the
street from the Post was set afire.
Unrest also spread to the rural northeast of the country, where
Red Shirts, who claim Abhisit's government is elitist and oblivious
to their plight, retain strong support.
Local media reported protesters set fire to government offices
in the city of Udon Thani and vandalized a city hall in Khon Kaen.
Udon Thani's governor asked the military to intervene. TV images
also showed troops retreating after being attacked by mobs in Ubon
The chaotic end to the Red Shirt gathering in Bangkok is certain
to deal a heavy blow to the economy and tourism industry of
Thailand, a key U.S. ally and long considered one of the more
stable countries in Southeast Asia. The Red Shirts are demanding
the ouster of Abhisit's government, the dissolution of Parliament
and new elections.
Cabinet minister Satit Vongnongteay described the chaos as
"There are violent-prone protesters who remain angry," Satit
told a news conference.
At least 44 people have been killed, most of them civilians, in
a week of violence in Bangkok as a military attempt to blockade the
protesters - who had camped in the 1-square-mile
(3-square-kilometer) Rajprasong district for six weeks - instead
touched off street fighting, with soldiers firing on protesters who
fought back mostly with homemade weapons.
The final crackdown began soon after dawn Wednesday, as hundreds
of troops armed with M-16s converged on the Red Shirt base in
Rajprasong, where high-end malls and hotels have been shuttered by
the prolonged protest.
Armored vehicles crashed through barricades of piled tires and
bamboo stakes, then soldiers gradually moved toward the protesters'
hub, opening fire and drawing return fire from militant Red Shirts,
Associated Press journalists saw.
Bullets flew overhead and several grenades exploded near the
soldiers, forcing them to pull back and take cover briefly before
pushing forward. A Canadian freelance reporter was injured by
grenade shrapnel. Two other journalists were wounded earlier, one
Dutch man and an American documentary filmmaker. An Italian
photographer was killed.
With no hope of resisting the military's advance, seven top Red
Shirt leaders turned themselves in on Wednesday afternoon, saying
they cannot see their supporters - women and children among them -
being killed anymore.
"Brothers and sisters, I'm sorry I cannot see you off the way I
welcomed you all when you arrived here. But please be assured that
our hearts will always be with you," Nattawut Saikua, a key
leader, said as he was being arrested.
"Please return home," he said.
By mid-afternoon, the army announced it had gained control of
the protest zone and the operations had ended - nine hours after
troops launched the pre-dawn assault.
"Police officers and soldiers have now stopped their
operation," army spokesman Col. Sansern Kawekamnerd said.
But the Red Shirt leaders' decision to surrender - over two
months after they began their protest in the Thai capital - clearly
enraged some followers. Rioting spread quickly to other previously
unaffected areas of Bangkok - prompting the government declaration
of a curfew for at least one night - and to cities in the northeast
of the country.