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Thai troops hunt militants as Bangkok smoulders

Plumes of smoke hung over the Thai capital and gunfire crackled today as troops moved to crush militants who went on the rampage after a deadly crackdown on their anti-government protest camp.

world Updated: May 20, 2010 12:54 IST

Plumes of smoke hung over the Thai capital and gunfire crackled on Thursday as troops moved to crush militants who went on the rampage after a deadly crackdown on their anti-government protest camp.

Dozens of buildings including the stock exchange and the nation's biggest shopping mall were set ablaze in the chaotic aftermath of the campaign to shut down the Red Shirts' six-week occupation of a top retail district.

Bangkok was locked down in a curfew overnight, and authorities announced the measures would continue until Saturday as they work to stamp out pockets of resistance among the Red Shirts movement.

Soldiers fired warning shots on Thursday as they took up positions in the ruins of the Reds' rally site, attempting to restore order but warning that rebel snipers were still positioned on high-rise buildings.

Political observers warned that Thailand's troubles were far from over and that more civil unrest in the capital and the Reds' rural heartland was likely as a split widens between the kingdom's elites and the rural and urban poor.

"It's not the end of the conflict, it's just the beginning of another phase of war -- whatever you want to call it, civil war, guerrilla warfare," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

The Red Shirts began street rallies in mid-March to push for the ouster of a government they condemn as elitist and undemocratic.

Since then 75 people have been killed, including two foreign journalists, and about 1,800 injured.

The official toll from Wednesday's offensive stands at seven but authorities said nine others had been killed in a gunbattle 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 hospitalised since September and has not commented on the crisis.

Some 5,000 protesters who had cowered in fear there overnight were led out between police cordons.

The army promised a probe into the deaths, in a "safe zone" where many women and children had sought shelter, but said that soldiers were not responsible.

"If security officials wanted to kill people the death toll could be much higher," said army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, adding that the government was "ready to prove itself in this case".

Troops and police moved in Wednesday in an overwhelming offensive, punching through the Reds' towering homemade barricades made of tyres and razor wire and triggering battles with hardline protesters.

Those militant elements ran amok after their leaders turned themselves in to police, starting fires that left 35 locations in the capital ablaze including the vast Central World mall which is now in ruins and partly collapsed.

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 that had roamed late Wednesday before the curfew began 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 curfew measures have been extended to cover 23 provinces amid signs the conflict could spread outside the capital. Four provincial halls in rural areas were targeted with fiery attacks Wednesday.

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.

As two more top Reds leaders surrendered, Thaksin, who lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption, applauded their move and said he regretted the deaths and injuries.

"I praise the Red Shirt leaders' decision to save the lives of their comrades by surrendering themselves to police," he said on Twitter.