Thai soldiers with armored vehicles stormed into a fortified anti-government encampment Wednesday in central Bangkok, breaking through bamboo barricades and killing at least two protesters in a crackdown after weeks of clashes that have killed dozens.
Once inside the protest zone, troops fired M-16 rifles at fleeing protesters and shouted, "Come out and surrender or we'll kill you."
An Associated Press reporter who followed the troops into the protest camp saw the bodies of two men sprawled on the ground, one with a head wound and other apparently shot in the upper body. They were the first known casualties in the assault that began before dawn Wednesday on a 1-square kilometer (3-square kilometer) stretch of downtown Bangkok that protesters have occupied for weeks.
|Thai soldiers fire torawds anti-government protesters near a barricade on Wednesday May 19, 2010 in Bangkok, Thailand.|
It was not clear how many protesters were still inside the encampment. As troops entered the fringes of the area, they passed smoldering fires and hastily abandoned campsites where clothes were still hanging on laundry lines. Shoes were scattered, chairs were overturned and a huge pile of rice was covered with flies.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn went on national television four hours after the crackdown began to announce it was under way, speaking first in Thai and then in English.
"The operations will continue throughout the day," Panitan said. "We would like to reassure the citizens of Bangkok that the operations are designed to make sure we stabilize the area."
The army action came after weeks of defiance by the protesters who are seeking to oust the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
"This is D-Day," said one soldier when asked earlier in the day if this was the final push to clear the protest zone.
Thick black smoke from mountains of burning tires darkened the skies Wednesday, billowing over the skyscrapers of this Asian metropolis of 10 million that has descended into chaos over the last week, with at least 39 killed, most of them civilians.
The violence in Bangkok, a popular stop for tourists heading to Thailand's world-famous beaches, has caused concern internationally and raised doubts about the stability of this Southeast Asian nation.
The so-called Red Shirt demonstrators marched into Bangkok in mid-March to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, dissolution of Parliament and immediate elections.
They created an encampment in Bangkok's posh downtown Rajprasong district in April, surrounding themselves by a barricade of tires and bamboo spears, some of which appeared to be in flames Wednesday.
An estimated 3,000 people were believed to be inside the 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) protest zone, which has taken over several blocks of downtown Bangkok's toniest shopping and tourism district.