Downtown Bangkok became a raging battleground Wednesday as the army stormed a barricaded protest camp and the Red Shirt leadership surrendered, enraging demonstrators who fired grenades and set fires that cloaked the skyline in a black haze.

Share story

Downtown Bangkok became a raging battleground Wednesday as the army stormed a barricaded protest camp and the Red Shirt leadership surrendered, enraging demonstrators who fired grenades and set fires that cloaked the skyline in a black haze.

Rioters set fires at the Thai stock exchange, several banks, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, the high-end Central World shopping mall and a cinema complex that collapsed.

The Thai government declared a curfew in Bangkok from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. An announcement signed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and broadcast on television banned anyone from leaving home during those times without permission from authorities.

At least two protesters and an Italian news photographer were killed in Wednesday’s army crackdown. Three other foreign journalists and 15 Thais were wounded in the fighting.

The chaotic end to the Red Shirt campaign is certain to deal a heavy blow to the economy and tourism industry of Thailand, a key U.S. ally and long considered one of the more stable economies of Southeast Asia. The Red Shirts are demanding the ouster of Abhisit’s government, the dissolution of Parliament and new elections.

The Red Shirt protest leadership surrendered to authorities Wednesday afternoon and the army declared itself in full control, but fresh violence soon erupted across central Bangkok and unrest boiled over in the northeastern countryside, where the protests draw many of their mostly poor, rural supporters.

Protesters also turned their rage on the local media, which they have accused of biased coverage toward the government. Groups of rioters attacked the offices of state-run Channel 3 TV, where they set fires to cars parked outside, punctured water pipes that caused flooding and entered the building. The English-language Bangkok Post newspaper evacuated its staff after threats from the Red Shirts. A large office building down the street from the Post was set afire.

“At Channel 3 need urgent help from police, soldiers!!!” tweeted news anchor Patcharasri Benjamasa. “News cars were smashed and they are about to invade the building.”

Less than an hour later, Channel 3 stopped broadcasting.

Cabinet minister Satit Vongnongteay described the chaos as anticipated “aftershocks.”

“There are violent-prone protesters who remain angry,” Satit told a news conference.

Surreal scenes of warfare erupted soon after dawn Wednesday in one of the ritziest parts of the capital, a city of 10 million people, as troops armed with M-16s converged on the central business district.

At least 42 people have been killed, most of them civilians, in a week of violence in Bangkok as a military attempt to blockade the protesters – who had camped in a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) tourism and shopping district for more than four weeks – instead touched off street fighting, with soldiers firing on protesters who fought back mostly with homemade weapons.

On Wednesday afternoon, seven top Red Shirt leaders turned themselves in, saying they cannot see their supporters being killed anymore.

“Brothers and sisters, I’m sorry I cannot see you off the way I welcomed you all when you arrived here. But please be assured that our hearts will always be with you,” Nattawut Saikua, a key leader, said as he was being arrested.

“Please return home,” he said.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn declared the first stage of the army operation to secure the area around Lumpini Park successful.

But the advance was stalled by sniper fire from Red Shirts, Associated Press journalists saw. Bullets flew overhead and several grenades exploded near the soldiers, forcing them to pull back and take cover briefly before pushing forward. A Canadian freelance reporter was injured by grenade shrapnel. Two other journalists were wounded earlier, one Dutch man and an American documentary filmmaker.

By mid-afternoon, the army announced it had gained control of the protest zone and the operations had ended – nine hours after troops launched the pre-dawn assault.

“Police officers and soldiers have now stopped their operation,” army spokesman Col. Sansern Kawekamnerd said.

Despite the army statement and the surrender by the leaders, many enraged Red Shirt protesters refused to give up.

Rioting spread to other previously unaffected areas of Bangkok and the northeast of the country. A high-end shopping mall, Central World, was set on fire and smoke was seen rising from several places in the capital.

There were also reports that the Red Shirts had set fire to government offices in the northeastern province Udon Thani and vandalized a city hall in Khon Kaen, also in the northeast. Udon Thani’s governor asked the military to intervene. TV images showed troops retreating after being attacked by mobs in Ubon Ratchathani.

Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Jocelyn Gecker, Vijay Joshi, Eric Talmadge and Chris Blake contributed to this report.