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Fires break out after military storm base in Bangkok

Five people were killed when troops punched through the barricades of Thailand's anti-government protesters.

A Thai Red Shirt anti-government protester runs beside a shop set ablaze a few hours before the leaders of the movement announced their surrender inside the protesters' camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010.
A Thai Red Shirt anti-government protester runs beside a shop set ablaze a few hours before the leaders of the movement announced their surrender inside the protesters' camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010.

Fires broke out at a major shopping centre, the Thai stock exchange and other locations in Bangkok today after an army offensive that shut down a protest camp in the capital, a fire official said. Thailand's anti-government "Red Shirts" have ended their street protest campaign as leaders surrendered to police after a military offensive against their rally base. At least four Reds leaders turned themselves in, after an overwhelming operation by troops who punched through the barricades of their camp in Bangkok's shopping district which they have occupied for six weeks. The Thai army had stormed a vast protest site in Bangkok, leaving at least five people dead as armed troops smashed down barricades and clashed with demonstrators. The army used armoured vehicles to ram into the sprawling encampment, which had been fortified with towering walls made from tyres, bamboo stakes and razor wire. A foreign journalist was among those shot dead during the clashes. "An Italian man was shot and died before arriving at the hospital," said the Police Hospital director Jongjet Aoajenpong. "He's a journalist. He was shot in the stomach," he added. Four more people died and "many" were wounded, said a police spokesman, Major General Piya Uthayo. The Reds leaders asked thousands of supporters in the camp to leave, and to proceed to an area where the government has laid on buses so they can depart the capital. "I ask everyone to go home," said senior Reds figure Nattawut Saikuar in a television interview from the National Police Office where he was in custody. "There will be police guarding the road and providing security for you. I hope that you return home safely," he said. Earlier, Reds leaders had tearfully announced the end of their protest movement in front of a large crowd of emotional supporters, including many women and children. "I know that you are suffering. Some of us are speechless. But we want to stop any more deaths here," said Jatuporn Prompan. "I know that if the military comes here many of you will sacrifice your lives and we cannot stand to see that." "We are ending the protests here," said Nattawut from the main protest stage. "I know this is unacceptable to some of you and some of you do not want to hear but we cannot stand against this cruelty." "We will exchange our freedom with your safety. We have tried our best." *AFP

In the face of the barrage, some 100 other protesters fled towards the movement's main rally stage in the heart of their sprawling encampment, which has shut down Bangkok's main shopping district. Reds leaders tried to quell a rising sense of panic among some 5,000 supporters including many women and children who are still inside the rally base despite the violence and orders to leave. Some were openly crying and others put on face masks in fear of tear gas attacks.

"Please stay calm today, no matter what happens we will stay here together," the leader Nattawut Saikuar said from the stage where protesters were gathered for safety, directing them to a nearby Buddhist temple if necessary. "Those who fear for your life go to the temple, but those who volunteer to stay here you are free to do so." The government said the offensive was aimed at establishing a secure perimeter around the protest base, but the military offensive now appeared to be aimed at completely closing down the camp.

"The operations are designed to make sure that the security officers can provide security and safety to the public at large. The operations will continue throughout the day," said a government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. "We would like to reassure the citizens and residents of Bangkok that the operations are designed to make sure that we stabilise the area," he said in a televised address. A senator involved in failed last-minute peace talks said he feared the military operation, launched after the Reds defied a Monday deadline to disperse, would cause serious loss of life.

"The government has chosen to decisively enforce the law. The signals are that absolutely the army will win, but the losses will be unbearable," said General Lertrat Rattanavanich. "Certainly based on all the signs that I have seen there will be a crackdown, not a containment," added the senator, who was one of a group in the upper house who tried to act as mediators. Hundreds of army and police advanced towards the protest zone in the pre-dawn hours, with trucks dropping off troops wearing balaclavas and carrying weapons and riot shields, while a helicopter circled overhead.

Several large fires broke out at barricades and major buildings around the protest zone, sending out massive clouds of black smoke that obscured the Bangkok skyline. Dozens of soldiers crept along Wireless Road, which runs parallel to the protest zone, crouching behind trees and poles and scurrying up foot bridges near the US embassy, which has been closed. The Reds are campaigning for elections to replace the administration of the prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which they consider illegitimate because it came to power with the backing of the army in a 2008 parliamentary vote.

*AFP