Published: May 19, 2010 1:04 PM EDT

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

authorities.

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

Ratchathani.

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

anticipated "aftershocks."

"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.

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