A curfew was imposed in Bangkok and 23 Thai provinces Wednesday, after an army crackdown on an anti-government rally forced "Red Shirt" protest leaders to surrender but ignited a wave of riots and arson in the capital.
REUTERS - Rioting and fires swept Bangkok on Wednesday after troops stormed a protest encampment, forcing anti-government protest leaders to surrender but triggering clashes that killed at least six and led to unrest in the north.
The government extended an overnight curfew in Bangkok to 24 provinces -- nearly one-third of the total. Unrest spread to seven provinces, and town halls were burnt in three northern areas, strongholds of anti-government activists.
"Red shirt" protesters earlier set at least 27 buildings ablaze in the capital, including the Thai stock exchange and at least 16 bank branches. Central World, southeast Asia's second-biggest department store complex, was gutted by fire and looked as if it might collapse, a Reuters witness said.
The unrest is the "most widespread and most uncontrollable"political violence Thailand has ever seen, said political historian Charnvit Kasetsiri. It is exactly 18 years since a major bout of unrest known as "Black May".
"I am confident and determined to end the problems and return the country to peace and order once again," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a televised address on Wednesday night.
In Washington, a U.S. State Department official told reporters talks were planned with Thai diplomats and officials.
"There has been substantial burning, substantial looting throughout the city and there are reports of sporadic incidents throughout the country as a whole," said Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.
Britain altered an advisory, recommending against all travel to Bangkok "in view of the highly uncertain security situation and the currently unpredictable violence".
It was unclear whether the continued rioting, after the surrender of the protest leaders, was a final flurry of anti-government action or the start of more intense, widespread fighting.
"The situation is worse than expected now and it's very difficult to stop," said Kavee Chukitsakem, head of research at Kasikorn Securities. "After the red shirt leaders surrendered, things were out of control. It's like insects flying around from one place to another, causing irritation."
An overnight curfew was imposed on Bangkok and later extended to 24 provinces, and security forces were authorised to shoot looters and arsonists.
Medical and disaster teams were put on standby as troops pursued operations overnight. Bangkok turned quiet soon after the curfew began, sources in the capital said, but there were also reports of skirmishes in darkened streets.
Groups of red shirt protesters remained in at least two areas of Bangkok, where gunshots were heard late on Wednesday.
At least 700 women, children and elderly people remained overnight at a Buddhist temple next to the main protest camp.
"They have been psychologically scared and brainwashed byt he leaders that they would get killed if they leave," said child rights advocate Wallop Tangkananuwat.
A news blackout was imposed and local TV ran programmes of dancing and flag-waving Thais, periodically interrupting them for government statements.
"It's going to be hard to quell this, and tonight is going to be very ominous with the media taken off air and the curfew in place. There will be chaos and a widespread crackdown can be expected," said Charnvit. (For a snap analysis:)
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Thailand's Stock Exchange closed early on Wednesday, and will stay closed on Thursday and Friday, as will banks.
The benchmark stock index ended up 0.71 percent at 765.54 on Wednesday. Analysts said some investors bought shares on news the military had dispersed protesters who have paralysed part of central Bangkok for more than six weeks.
"For investors, it is going to take years to bring credibility back to the country," said Kongkiat Opaswongkarn, head of Asia Plus Securities.
The red shirts accuse Abhisit of lacking a mandate after coming to power in a controversial 2008 parliamentary vote withtacit backing from the military. They want immediate elections.
"It would be suicide to laun
ch an election in this environment," Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij told the BBC, adding an end-of-year poll may still be possible.
The protesters, mostly rural and poor city dwellers, broadly support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup and living in self-imposed exile to avoid jail on a graft conviction.
Thaksin believes the crackdown could spawn guerrilla warfare. "There is a theory saying a military crackdown canspread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas," Thaksin told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"There are lots and lots of people across the country who are upset because they were prevented from joining the Bangkok rally," Thaksin said from an undisclosed location in exile.
The offensive was launched a day after the collapse of proposed talks aimed at ending what had become urban warfare. More than 70 people have been killed and nearly 2,000 people wounded since the demonstrations began in mid-March.
Troops in armoured vehicles and firing semi-automatic weapons advanced on the protesters' camp in the morning, breaking through three-metre-high (10 feet) barricades of tyres and bamboo.
Minutes after senior protest leaders surrendered, three grenades exploded outside the main protest site, badly wounding two soldiers and a foreign journalist, a Reuters witness said.
Three journalists were among 50 people wounded in Bangkok on Wednesday. One Western journalist, an Italian, was killed.
Date created : 2010-05-19