Protesters killed as Thai troops move into encampment
Thai troops have broken through protest barricades in Bangkok, killing at least four protesters, as the army launched a long-planned clearance operation against opposition demonstrations in the city centre.
Government soldiers were engaged in gunbattles with the Red Shirt protesters after armoured personnel carriers stormed the tyre and bamboo barricades.
Many of the protesters fled further within the encampment as the army advanced.
At least four protesters were killed in the violence, with witnesses describing how one man was shot in the head by troops before being carried away.
There were also reports that two foreign journalists had been wounded in the fighting, and that one Italian journalist may have died.
As troops closed in on the encampment from several sides, checkpoints were set up to filter movement in and out of the area, but the army later claimed that some of the leaders had escaped. Platoons also used the elevated rail line cutting through the area to advance on the demonstrators and water cannons targeted staged positions.
Under a banner proclaiming "Peaceful Protestors not terrorists" the remaining protestors, including a few hundred women and children, vowed not to leave, but hours later troops were seen clearing parts of the camp, removing banners and leftover food.
By mid morning the army claimed to have retaken the central Bangkok area. Some protesors were openly crying and others put on face masks in fear of tear gas attacks.
"Please stay calm today, no matter what happens we will stay here together," leader Nattawut Saikuar said from the stage where protesters were gathered for safety, directing them to a nearby Buddhist temple if necessary.
"Those who fear for your life go to the temple, but those who volunteer to stay here you are free to do so."
From the north there was heavy gunfire on Wireless Road in the vicinity of the British and American embassies. Residents of the area watched in horror from roof tops as the operation began.
Government officials said that the government and army chiefs gave the order to move only after determining that leaders were incapable to disperse the demonstrations even if negotiations were successful.
"The protest must end immediately and leaders must surrender and stop the violence," said chief negotiator Korbsak Sabhavasu. Mr Korbsak blamed former prime minister Thaksin Shinwatra for preventing compromise from exile.
A government spokesman warned people in affected areas to stay indoors as troops "narrowed down" the protest area. "We would like to reassure residents of Bangkok that operations are designed to stabilise Bangkok," said Panitan Wattanayagorn. "Thank you for your cooperation." "This is D-Day," said one soldier.
The demonstrators began the protest in mid-March, `demanding 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.
"This is the last push. Looks like the government really wants to end it this time," said Senator Lertrat Rattanawanit, who had tried to mediate between the two sides. "They have laid out the steps, giving out deadlines for people to move out and all that. It's a pity that using force is inevitable."
Asked if losses could be prevented, he said: "It's impossible."
The protest site contains dozens of office buildings and condominiums, as well as two hospitals, including one right next to the main stage.
Using loudspeakers, authorities told women and children to leave the protest site, the state-owned NBT television network reported today.
Since 1946, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej took the Thai throne as an 18-year-old, Thailand has seen nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers. Only two of 17 constitutions since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 have mandated parliaments that are entirely elected. The king, who is revered across the nation, has been in hospital since Sept. 19 and hasn't spoken publicly about the current demonstrations.
Mr Abhisit himself has never won a national election: He was picked by legislators in December 2008 after a court dissolved the pro-Thaksin ruling party for election fraud. The decision coincided with the seizure of Bangkok's airports by protesters wearing yellow shirts who oppose Mr Thaksin.