Bangkok burns as troops lose control in crackdown
Published 20/05/2010 | 05:00
The Thai government admitted last night that it had lost control of parts of Bangkok after protesters set fire to key buildings following a day of running battles with troops.
A dozen people were killed, including an Italian photographer, and 60 injured as the protests entered their endgame.
Rioters set fires at the stock exchange, electricity headquarters, banks and government offices. The much-loved Siam Theatre collapsed in flames and hundreds of people had to be rescued from the burning headquarters of Channel 3 television.
The death toll since fresh outbreaks of violence began last Thursday, in the wake of the fatal shooting of Major Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol, a rebel commander, now stands at 51.
The day began with the authorities issuing "shoot-on-sight" orders for a dawn raid as troops tried to disperse 2,000 Red Shirts who have been camped in Rajprasong, the capital's premier shopping and office district, for six weeks.
Seven Red Shirt leaders surrendered but militant gangs then went on a spree of arson and looting. The vast Central World shopping centre was set ablaze as troops shot to kill in a last-ditch effort to defend it.
When the army finally marched cautiously into the protesters' former stronghold, the 2,000-strong crowd had dwindled to one woman.
Kuesadee Narukan, an elderly nurse, stood holding a red flag in the deserted arena. "I am not afraid. I am ready for my punishment," she said. "I am a fighter for democracy."
The rest had left for a sports stadium to be loaded on buses heading for their homes.
A government spokesman said: "The government took control of Rajprasong and Lumpini but there are still several areas where the government has to continue operations."
He called on arsonists and looters to stop or face "decisive measures", adding: "Tonight will be another night of suffering."
A Red Shirt commander said the violence would continue. "All this area will burn. Wherever I go I am OK because the army is fighting ghosts far behind me," the self-styled Commander Toei said. "All of Bangkok is supporting our effort."
An offer of early elections from Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a 45-year old Old Etonian, has failed to defuse the impasse. In a televised address last night, Mr Abhisit said that he would survive.
"I would like people to feel confident that my government, all officials and I, strongly intend to get through this and we will return peace to the country and recover," he said.
A curfew -- the first in 18 years -- was in place last night but there were doubts whether it would hold. Trouble flared in several regions, prompting its extension to 23 provinces.
Protesters want the dissolution of parliament and the rehabilitation of Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed as prime minister in 2006. Mr Thaksin, who once owned Manchester City football club, was officially branded a terrorist last night.
He denied controlling the protests and said: "A military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas."
In Dublin, the Department of Foreign Affairs advised against all but essential travel to Thailand. Last night the United States called for a peaceful resolution. (© Daily Telegraph, London)