(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
BANGKOK — Thai soldiers launched an assault Wednesday against "red shirt" protesters in a military operation that forced anti-government protest leaders to surrender but left parts of Bangkok in the grip of near-anarchy.
Enraged by the offensive, protesters set fire to Thailand's stock exchange and Southeast Asia's second-biggest shopping mall, looted luxury boutiques and fired grenades and guns in areas previously untouched by the mayhem. Disorder spread to at least seven provinces, and protesters set fire to town halls in three northern cities.
In an effort to contain the violence, the government imposed an overnight curfew on Bangkok and extended it to 21 provinces. It also banned coverage of the unrest on local television channels, which limited themselves to government announcements.
At least five protesters and an Italian freelance news photographer were reported killed in Wednesday's clashes, and about 60 other people were wounded. But there were indications that the death toll could rise. The Associated Press quoted witnesses as saying at least six more bodies were recovered in the capital's protest zone after the military assault.
Speaking on television, embattled Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he was "confident and determined to end the problems and return the country to peace and order once again."
In an offensive launched at daybreak after days of escalating confrontation, armored vehicles smashed through barricades made of sharpened bamboo poles and rubber tires while heavily armed troops raced deep into territory occupied for more than a month by protesters.
As the military advanced toward the center of the fortified encampment, protest leader Jatuporn Prompan announced that he and other "core leaders" would turn themselves in to police. He pleaded with followers to leave the area to avoid further bloodshed.
"We have no more words to speak because all your hearts are already far beyond death," Jatuporn said. "Today we will stop the death but we will not stop fighting. People keep dying; let's stop the death together."
An angry mob ignored the appeal for an orderly retreat and set fire to
parts of Central World Plaza, an upscale nearby shopping mall, under the
gaze of fashion models pictured on billboards advertising luxury
clothing. Thick smoke billowed from the shopping center and also from
Siam Theatre -- a popular movie house -- a government-owned bank and
other buildings. Rioters set fire to the Thai stock exchange, which had
closed early because of the violence. Some protesters began setting up
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The government said it had the situation under control but also declared
that a curfew would go into effect at 8 p.m. and continue until 6 a.m.
Dazed tourists struggled to get back to their hotels through military
checkpoints amid sporadic rounds of gunfire. Electricity went off in
residential areas far from the protest zone.
There also were reports of unrest elsewhere in Thailand, a close
military ally of the United States and popular tourist destination that
touts itself as the "land of smiles."