Thai protesters surrender after deadly army crackdown

Thai protest leaders surrendered Wednesday and told thousands of "Red Shirt" supporters to end their weeks-long rally after an army assault on their fortified encampment left at least five people dead.

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.

The military announced in a televised address that the situation was under control and it had halted its operation against the anti-government protesters, whose supporters in northeast Thailand set fire to a provincial hall.

The defence minister told AFP that a night-time curfew would be imposed across the capital, which had been turned into a battle zone in recent days as troops used live ammunition against demonstrators, some of them armed.

Gunfire crackled in clashes that erupted Wednesday after military armoured vehicles smashed through barricades erected around the Red Shirts' sprawling rally base in Bangkok and armed troops moved in.

A tearful protest leader later announced on stage that the Reds would end their occupation of an upscale shopping and hotel district in the heart of the capital where they have been camped for six weeks.

At least four top Reds later went to the police headquarters nearby to give themselves up. The government said earlier some others had already fled.

An Italian photographer was among those shot dead during the clashes at one end of the rally base, which stretches for several kilometres (miles) and had been fortified with barricades made with tyres, bamboo stakes and razor wire.

"An Italian man was shot and died before arriving at the hospital," said 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 Police Hospital said 19 people were wounded, including several other foreign journalists.

An AFP photographer saw two protesters lying dead on the ground after being shot in the head when troops pushed into the encampment.

"I got shot from behind through the shoulder. It's just a flesh wound," a reporter with Dutch national TV, Michel Maas, told AFP at the hospital. The other journalist, an American, was nicked in the leg and not seriously wounded.

A third journalist, a Canadian, and four soldiers were also badly wounded by grenade attacks inside the camp, AFP witnesses saw.

Piya said police had deployed about 1,000 rapid movement officers who were authorised to shoot on sight anyone looting, committing arson or inciting unrest, following several days of urban warfare in the capital.

The "Red Shirts" had defied a government deadline to leave by Monday. A military lockdown to seal off the site that was launched last Thursday had left more than 40 dead in six days of violence.

Several thousand protesters, including many women and children, were inside the rally base when the army moved in.

Some were openly crying and others put on face masks in fear of tear gas attacks. Their leaders later asked them to disperse and walk towards an area where the government had laid on buses to take them away.

Hundreds of army and police had 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.

The Reds are campaigning for elections to replace the administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which they consider illegitimate because it came to power with the backing of the army in a 2008 parliamentary vote.

They are mostly supporters of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup. A controversial court ruling ejected his elected allies from power, paving the way for Abhisit's government to be appointed.

Many countries have warned their nations against travelling to Thailand. Australia Wednesday said travellers should not visit Bangkok, citing the deteriorating security situation.

Source: AFP

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