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Thailand troops target pockets of holdout protesters

A firefighter hoses down a smoldering section of

A firefighter hoses down a smoldering section of Central World shopping mall, Thursday, May 20, in Bangkok, Thailand, after Thai troops routed anti-government protesters who had occupied the city's central business district. Credit: AP

BANGKOK - Buildings smoldered across central Bangkok early Thursday and troops exchanged sporadic fire with pockets of holdouts a day after the army routed anti-government protesters in a push to end Thailand's deadliest political violence in nearly 20 years.

The government quelled most of the violence in the battered Thai capital after a major military operation that killed at least seven people and left 88 wounded. But underlying political divisions that caused Thailand's crisis may have been exacerbated, and unrest spread to provinces in the north and northeast.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva imposed a nighttime curfew in the capital and 23 other provinces and said his government would restore calm. Although leaders of the Red Shirt demonstrators surrendered, sporadic clashes between troops and remaining protesters continued Thursday morning.

As night fell Wednesday, Bangkok's skyline was blotted by flashes of fire and black smoke from more than two dozen buildings set ablaze - including Thailand's stock exchange, main power company, banks, a movie theater and one of Asia's largest shopping malls.

On Thursday morning, troops in the central business district, occupied by protesters for weeks, exchanged occasional fire with holdouts as locals in the area looted a vast tent city the activists had cobbled together.

A special police unit entered a temple inside the former protest site where several thousand Red Shirt supporters, most of them women, old men and children, had sought shelter in recent days.

Asssociated Press photographers said there was no resistance at the temple as police took away the group to a nearby police station.

Some cried and many were fearful that they would be incarcerated by the military and others remained defiant.

"We won. We won. The Red Shirts will rise again," shouted one woman.

Since the Red Shirts began their protest in mid-March, at least 75 people - mostly civilians - have been killed and nearly 1,800 wounded. Of those, 46 people have died in clashes that started May 13 after the army tried to blockade their 1-square-mile camp.

Six bodies were found at the temple, but it was unclear when those people died and whether they already were included in the official death toll as collected by the government's Erawan Emergency Center.

Elsewhere in the city, municipal workers removed debris and collected piles of garbage left in the streets that had been cordoned off by authorities for the past week.

While many of the rioters were believed to be members of the Red Shirts and their sympathizers, there was also an element of criminals and young hoodlums involved in the mayhem in the city of 10 million people. The protest and violence in one of Southeast Asia's most stable countries has damaged its economy and tourism industry.

With the top Red Shirt leaders in custody, it was unclear what the next move would be for the protesters who had demanded the ouster of the prime minister's government, the dissolution of parliament and new elections. The protesters, many of them poor farmers or members of the urban underclass, say Abhisit came to power illegitimately and is oblivious to their plight.

The crackdown should silence the large number of government supporters who were urging a harder line, and the rioting that followed may extinguish the widespread sympathy many had for the protesters' cause.

But that same violence also showed a serious intelligence lapse by the military, and the failure to secure areas of the capital raised doubt over how any unrest in the protesters' heartland of the north and northeast can be stilled.

Many Thais feel that any short-term peace may have been purchased at the price of further polarization that will lead to years of bitter, cyclical conflict.

"The Reds rampaged and committed to armed resistance," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "Right now, they are just burning buildings, but later on, what if they picked up arms to fight the bureaucrats, security forces in other parts of Bangkok, and especially in the countryside? So this is just the beginning. The crackdown didn't make them retreat fully. Things will get much worse still."

Thitinan said the government will need to seek a political settlement. "The problem now is that who does the government talk to?" he said.

Some point to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and fled into exile before being sentenced to two years in prison for corruption. The government has accused him of bankrolling the protests and refuses to make any deals with him until he comes back to serve his sentence.

The crackdown began soon after dawn Wednesday, as hundreds of troops with M-16s converged on the Red Shirts' camp, where nearby high-end malls and hotels have been shuttered by the prolonged protest.

Armored vehicles crashed through barricades of piled tires and bamboo stakes, and soldiers then gradually moved toward the protesters' hub, opening fire with live ammunition and drawing return fire from militant Red Shirts, according to Associated Press reporters at the scene.

Bullets flew and several grenades exploded near the soldiers, forcing them to pull back briefly before pushing forward.

Among the dead was an Italian photographer. A Canadian freelance reporter was wounded by shrapnel and a reporter for the British newspaper The Independent was shot in the leg. Two other journalists were wounded earlier - one Dutchman and an American documentary filmmaker.

The unrest spread outside Bangkok, with Thai media reporting that protesters set fire to government offices in the city of Udon Thani and vandalized a city building in Khon Kaen. Udon Thani's governor asked the military to intervene.

TV reports also showed troops retreating after being attacked by mobs in Ubon Ratchathani, and more unrest was reported in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand's third-largest.

After protest leaders surrendered, their enraged followers scattered to other parts of the city to set fires, and some looting was reported.

One of the most striking images was gray smoke pouring from Bangkok's landmark CentralWorld shopping mall. One of Southeast Asia's largest shopping complexes, it measured 550,000 square meters (5.9 million square feet).

Firefighters trying to douse the flames at some of the buildings were forced to retreat for several hours because of gunfire.

The ground floor of Thailand's stock exchange, where about $600 million of shares changes hands each day, was gutted by fire. Its president, Patareeya Benjapolchai told the AP that the exchange would be closed for the rest of the week but that it may reopen Monday.

The central bank, meanwhile, said all financial institutions in Bangkok, including commercial banks, would be shut Thursday and Friday.

Cabinet minister Satit Vongnongteay described the chaos as anticipated "aftershocks" of the crackdown.

Rioters also turned their rage on the local media, which has been accused of pro-government coverage. They attacked the offices of state-run Channel 3, setting fire to cars outside and puncturing water pipes that flooded the building.

"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."

The building was set on fire, but its staff fled to safety. The English-language Bangkok Post newspaper evacuated its staff over fears of an attack.

Abhisit said in a televised address Wednesday night that troops had been given the go-ahead to shoot suspected arsonists. A 10-hour curfew took effect in Bangkok and other provinces at 8 p.m., and the government said army operations would continue through the night. Another announcement said captured arsonists and "terrorists" could face capital punishment.

It was the first time that Bangkok was put under curfew since 1992, when the army killed dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators seeking the ouster of a military-backed government in a crisis now know as "Black May." Authorities also imposed a partial media blackout on local TV stations, saying all of them would have to show government-prepared bulletins.

Seven top Red Shirt leaders surrendered Wednesday, saying they could not stand seeing their supporters being killed.

"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 arrested. "Please return home."

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, another Red Shirt leader, said the movement would go on despite the day's events.

"This is not the end," he said. "It will spread further and the situation will deteriorate. Initially, independent mass movements in Bangkok and other provinces will begin, then riots will ensue. This will be done by individuals, not by protest leaders. The crowds will reunite soon."

- Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Chris Blake, Denis Gray, Vijay Joshi, Eric Talmadge, Grant Peck, Stephen Wright and Ian Mader contributed to this report.

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