Plumes of smoke hung overhead and gunfire crackled Thursday as Bangkok emerged from an curfew aimed at quelling mayhem unleashed by enraged anti-government protesters targeted in an army offensive.
Thai firemen battled the fire at Thailand’s biggest shopping mall, CentralWorld, after it was set ablaze following an army assault on an anti-government protest site in Bangkok on May 20, 2010.
Dozens of buildings, including the stock exchange and the nation’s biggest shopping mall, were set ablaze in the chaotic aftermath of the bloody campaign to shut down the Red Shirts’ six-week occupation of a top retail district.
Soldiers fired warning shots Thursday as they took up positions on a train line within the rally zone, which troops stormed the day before, forcing the surrender of Red Shirts leaders who told their supporters to disperse.
The official toll from the offensive stands at seven but is set to rise much higher as authorities said that nine others had been killed in a gun battle at a Buddhist temple inside the protest camp.
Under the watch of saffron-clad monks, the bodies of six of the victims were laid out in the temple garden, under a portrait of Thailand’s revered king, who has been hospitalized since September and has not commented on the crisis.
The gunshots from the soldiers in positions overlooking the temple caused panic among up to 2,000 people who had gathered there, tense and saddened at the grisly scene before them.
The army said its commander, General Anupong Paojinda, had ordered an immediate investigation into the cause of the deaths in the temple where hundreds, including many women and children, had sought shelter.
“At this moment, it’s still unclear what was the cause of the shooting,” said army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, but he said it was believed that gunmen launched an “ambush.”
The temple had been declared a weapons-free zone, but an AFP reporter at the scene shortly before the clashes broke out saw militant black-clad protesters darting in and out as security forces attempted to mop up hardliners.
The Red Shirts began rolling street rallies in mid-March to push for the ouster of a government they condemn as illegitimate. Since then, 75 people have been killed, including two foreign journalists, and about 1,800 injured.
Troops and police moved in Wednesday in an overwhelming offensive, punching through the Reds’ towering homemade barricades made of tires and razor wire and triggering battles with hardline protesters.
Those militant elements ran amok after their leaders turned themselves in to police, setting fires that left 31 locations in the capital ablaze including the vast Central World mall, which is now in ruins.
“The fire at Central World is put under control, but the side of the Zen department store building has begun to collapse,” said Police Operation Centre spokesman, Prawut Thavornsiri, referring to a wall that towers about 18 stories.
Some 900 army and police had to escort firefighters to the scene so they could tackle the inferno. Police said fire crews were shot at earlier while attempting to extinguish another blaze at a cinema.
Elsewhere in the city, the unruly mobs who had roamed late Wednesday before the city came under an overnight curfew, appeared to have retreated, and the flashpoints of the last few days were quiet.
Looters pulled metal wire from charred buildings on a major thoroughfare leading into the ruined protest camp, where dozens of soldiers were guarding checkpoints.
Government offices and schools have been shut for the rest of the week to keep civilians off the street, and the city’s two main train networks are closed.
The Stock Exchange of Thailand is closed until next week after protesters set fire to its headquarters, and the Bank of Thailand has ordered all commercial banks in the capital to remain shuttered.
The government has not said whether it will announce another curfew Thursday night, but last night’s measure was extended to cover 23 provinces amid signs the conflict could spread outside the capital.
In Thailand’s rural and impoverished northeast, where the Reds have their bedrock support, four provincial halls were targeted with fiery attacks Wednesday, indicating the conflict could widen.
The Reds are mostly supporters of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup and who is now accused by the government of bankrolling the protests and inciting the deadly unrest.