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Bangkok smolders day after crackdown on red-shirt protesters

Sporadic violence flared in Thailand Thursday as more red-shirt protesters left their camp in Bangkok, two more leaders surrendered, and a curfew was extended until Sunday.

By Correspondent / May 20, 2010

Thai firefighters douse the Central World shopping mall building that was set on fire by antigovernment red-shirt protesters in Bangkok, Thursday.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

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Bangkok, Thailand

Thai authorities extended a nighttime curfew until Sunday as sporadic violence flared, one day after a military crackdown on a marathon "red-shirt" rally.

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At the abandoned rally site, firefighters aimed hoses at the smoldering ruin of a shopping mall, a favored spot for New Year countdowns in the capital. It was one of more than 20 locales targeted by arsonists inspired or led by the antigovernment red shirts. Similar attacks flared in cities north of Bangkok, where curfews were also declared.

Two more red-shirt leaders surrendered Thursday to police and will face criminal charges for their role in the protests, which have paralyzed parts of Bangkok for more than two months. The leaders and more than 50 protesters have been detained at a southern military camp under an emergency law in place in the capital and 23 other provinces, according to Thai media.

But many of the shadowy gunmen blamed for attacks on security forces and rival protesters melted away Wednesday, say witnesses. Troops were slow to sweep the site after making a rapid advance from its southern perimeter with a dawn attack on red-shirt barricades.

Fear and defiance

As gunshots rang out, at least 2,000 red shirts bedded down Wednesday at a Buddhist temple behind the torched mall. They were evacuated Thursday, as troops continued their mop-up operation. Many demonstrators had arrived from the rural north and northeast and are supporters of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

In the north and northeast, mobs set fire to several government buildings in what appeared to be preplanned revenge for the crackdown. But they didn’t galvanize much support in cities like Chiang Mai and quickly began to fizzle, says Paul Quaglia, executive director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok, speaking from Chiang Mai.

“We’re not out of the woods, but we’re not looking at widespread, sustained unrest,” he says, arguing that the arrest of key leaders could prevent the movement’s “militant crust” from regrouping.

On roads to the rally site, husks of burned tires scarred the tarmac. Troops in armored vehicles searched cars leaving the area, as residents emerged to assess the damage from a week of mayhem that turned parts of Bangkok into a war zone and trapped some families inside for days.

At the temple, evacuees expressed defiance, relief, and trepidation. Some walked out with only the clothes on their backs. Others carried straw mats, electric fans, and towels. “If everyone dies, it’s no good. This is OK,” says a soft-spoken man who only gave his nickname, Kung.

A wiry man crouching behind a car said he was afraid to surrender to security forces. Others cried in frustration as they were led toward lines of mostly unarmed police supervising the exodus and checking for weapons. Military officials have said that assault rifles and grenade launchers were recovered during Wednesday’s operation.

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