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Video by Cyril PAYEN

Latest update : 2010-05-20

Thai troops were hunting down militants who went on a rampage of arson and looting in Bangkok, after the leader of the opposition "Red Shirts" called on supporters to halt the mayhem that has left many buildings in central Bangkok in ruins.

AFP - Thai troops on Thursday hunted down militants who went on a rampage of arson and looting in Bangkok, after an army crackdown on their anti-government protest camp that ended two months of street rallies.

The top leader of the "Red Shirts", who were campaigning for elections to replace an administration they reject as undemocratic, urged supporters to halt the mayhem that left major buildings smouldering and in ruins.

"Democracy cannot be built on revenge. Good things are built on non-violence," Veera Musikapong said after surrendering to police along with other top leaders in the face of the military offensive that left 14 dead.

The stock exchange and the nation's biggest shopping mall were among dozens of locations set ablaze in the chaotic aftermath of the campaign to end the Reds' occupation of Bangkok's top retail district.

Political observers warned that Thailand's troubles were far from over and that more civil unrest in the capital and the Reds' rural heartland was likely as a split widens between the kingdom's elite and the rural and urban poor.

"It's not the end of the conflict, it's just the beginning of another phase of war -- whatever you want to call it, civil war, guerrilla warfare," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Bangkok prepared for a second night under curfew, and authorities announced the measures would continue until Saturday as they work to stamp out pockets of resistance among the Red Shirts movement.

The curfew has been extended to cover 23 provinces as the conflict spread outside the capital. Four provincial halls were targeted by arsonists Wednesday, and some 13,000 rallied in rural areas, the army said.

Soldiers fired warning shots Thursday as they took up positions in the ruins of the Reds' rally site in the capital, attempting to restore order but warning that rebel snipers were still positioned on high rise buildings.

Since the Red Shirts began street rallies in mid-March some 82 people including two foreign journalists have been killed in clashes and blasts, and some 1,800 injured.

"At this moment we are at the most difficult point in Thai history," said Thawil Pliensri, secretary general of the country's National Security Council, urging the government to tread carefully or risk inflaming the situation.

The toll from Wednesday's offensive rose after authorities said nine people had been killed in a gunbattle at a Buddhist temple inside the Reds' ruined camp, where thousands of protesters cowered in fear overnight.

Under the watch of saffron-clad monks, the bodies of six of the victims were laid out in the temple garden, under a portrait of Thailand's revered king, who has been hospitalised since September and has not commented on the crisis.

After the terrified protesters were led out through a police cordon, the army said it was not responsible for the deaths, in a "safe zone" where many women and children had sought shelter.

Troops and police moved in Wednesday in an overwhelming offensive, punching through the Reds' towering homemade barricades made of tyres and razor wire and triggering battles with hardline protesters.

Those militant elements ran amok after their leaders turned themselves in to police, starting fires that left 35 locations in the capital ablaze including the vast Central World mall which is now partly collapsed.

Some 900 army and police had to escort firefighters to the scene so they could tackle the inferno. Police said fire crews were shot at earlier while attempting to extinguish another blaze at a cinema.

Elsewhere in the city, the unruly mobs that had roamed late Wednesday before the curfew began appeared to have retreated and the flashpoints of the last few days were quiet.

Looters pulled metal wire from charred buildings on a major thoroughfare leading into the ruined protest camp, where dozens of soldiers were guarding checkpoints.

Government offices, schools, the stock exchange and banks have been shut for the rest of the week to keep civilians off the street, and the city's two main train networks were closed.

The Reds are mostly supporters of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup and who is now accused by the government of bankrolling the protests and inciting the deadly unrest.

Date created : 2010-05-20


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