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Clashes, fires roil Bangkok despite red-shirt protest leaders' surrender

Protesters burned buildings around Bangkok Wednesday even after troops overran the red-shirt camp and their leaders surrendered. Clashes left five people dead.

By Correspondent / May 19, 2010

Thai soldiers walk through an antigovernment barricade during a military crackdown Wednesday, in Bangkok, Thailand. Leaders of the red-shirt protesters have surrendered to authorities after a deadly Army assault on their fortified encampment.

Wason Wanichakorn/AP

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Bangkok, Thailand

Thai troops punched into a downtown protest camp Wednesday, ending a five-week rally but failing to stop violent unrest spreading around the capital as a nighttime curfew was declared.

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Leaders of the red-shirt protesters, who draw support from rural and working-class followers, surrendered to police in the early afternoon, when it became clear after a dawn assault that troops using armored personnel carriers and helicopters had taken control of the site.

The leaders told the crowd from a stage under an elevated train line that they were surrendering to avert further bloodshed. The announcement drew boos from some red shirts, though others held aloft photos of the leaders as they sat on the road.

But as the rally wound down, nearby department stores were set ablaze, part of a wave of arson attacks that have gathered pace in recent days. Across the city, pockets of resistance seemed to grow stronger as angry mobs torched buildings and tire barricades, sending black fumes into the sky. Fire trucks struggled to reach the scene, and gunfire and explosions echoed around neighborhoods where power supplies were cut. The stock exchange, a TV station, and banks were set ablaze.

Authorities said five people died in the takeover of the red-shirt camp. An Italian journalist was among the dead. Gunfights erupted around a park where militant reds were spotted. Troops advanced slowly into the barricaded site, a prime commercial district that once hummed with foreign tourists but has been turned into a vast squatter camp.

Government officials said on state television that the situation was returning to normal. A cabinet minister described the unrest as anticipated “aftershocks” and blamed “violent-prone protesters.”

Worst violence in years

But the clouds of billowing smoke on the horizon and sense of anarchy sowed fear among some residents. The political violence is the deadliest seen in Bangkok in nearly two decades, with more than 50 dead in six weeks. In recent days some neighborhoods have been evacuated.

“I don’t mind demonstrations, but this is rioting. We can’t go out at night, we fear robbery,” says Siriorn Doyle, a housewife, who peered out from her 10th-floor apartment at raging fires along a nearby road. She had to walk up the stairs as power had been cut off. Gas stations had been closed for days to stop protesters igniting homemade bombs, she says.

The red shirts, called the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, began gathering supporters in Bangkok on March 12 in a call for snap elections. Many UDD members are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lost power in 2006 to a military coup. They argue that Bangkok’s traditional elite and the powerful military have hijacked democracy.

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