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Video by Rebecca BOWRING


Latest update : 2010-05-19

Heavy fighting raged Wednesday in central Bangkok as Thai troops punched through 'Red Shirt' protest zone barricades. At least five people were killed, according to Thai police, including an Italian man.

AFP - Thai troops battled with anti-government protesters Wednesday, after smashing into their rally zone using armoured vehicles and tearing down towering barricades of tyres and razor wire.

Gunfire was being exchanged in clashes in the protest encampment, which the "Red Shirts" have occupied for six weeks, defying a military containment operation launched last Thursday that left 39 dead.

An AFP photographer saw two protesters lying dead inside the camp, while hospital officials said an Italian journalist was also killed in the clashes. At least seven others were wounded and sent to hospital.

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," 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 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.

"Danger zone," one soldier said, waving reporters back as muffled cracks rang out from nearby Lumpini park, which the protesters had spilled into during an occupation that has forced hotels and shopping centres to close.

Security forces have battled with the Reds since last Thursday as they attempted to seal off the rally base, turning parts of the city into no-go zones as troops used live ammunition against protesters, who fought back mainly with homemade weapons.

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.

Date created : 2010-05-19


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