, BANGKOK, May 19 – The Thai army stormed a vast protest site in Bangkok on Wednesday, leaving at least five people dead as armed troops smashed down barricades and clashed with demonstrators.
A tearful protest leader announced on stage that the anti-government Red Shirts would end their weeks-long rally in the retail heart of the capital, saying their leaders would surrender to police shortly.
The government said some top Red Shirts had fled the scene but several others were seen still at the main rally stage.
The army used armoured vehicles to ram into the sprawling encampment, which had been fortified with towering walls made from tyres, bamboo stakes and razor wire.
Several thousand anti-government "Red Shirt" protesters remained inside, defying a demand to leave.
A foreign journalist was among those shot dead during the clashes, which erupted at one end of the rally base, which stretches for several kilometres (miles).
"An Italian man was shot and died before arriving at the hospital," said Police Hospital director Jongjet Aoajenpong. "He\’s a journalist. He was shot in the stomach," he added.
Four more people died and "many" were wounded, said a police spokesman, Major General Piya Uthayo.
He said police had deployed about 1,000 rapid movement troops who were authorised to shoot on sight anyone looting, committing arson or inciting unrest, following several days of urban warfare in the capital.
An AFP photographer saw two protesters lying dead on the ground after being shot in the head when troops pushed into the encampment.
The Police Hospital said 18 people were wounded, including two foreign journalists.
"I got shot from behind through the shoulder. It\’s just a flesh wound," a reporter with Dutch national TV, Michel Maas, told AFP at the hospital. The other journalist, an American, was nicked in the leg and not seriously wounded.
The "Red Shirts" have occupied the site for six weeks, defying a military containment operation launched last Thursday that has left more than 40 dead in six days of violence.
Reds leaders tried to quell a rising sense of panic among some 5,000 supporters including many women and children who are still inside the rally base despite the violence and orders to leave.
Some were openly crying and others put on face masks in fear of tear gas attacks. Their leaders later asked them to disperse and walk towards an area where the government had laid on buses to take them away.
Hundreds of army and police advanced towards the protest zone in the pre-dawn hours, with trucks dropping off troops wearing balaclavas and carrying weapons and riot shields, while a helicopter circled overhead.
Several large fires broke out at barricades and major buildings around the protest zone, sending out massive clouds of black smoke that obscured the Bangkok skyline.
Dozens of soldiers crept along Wireless Road, which runs parallel to the protest zone, crouching behind trees and poles and scurrying up foot bridges near the US embassy, which has been closed.
"Danger zone," one soldier said, waving reporters back as muffled cracks rang out from nearby Lumpini park, which the protesters had spilled into during an occupation that has forced hotels and shopping centres to close.
The Reds are campaigning for elections to replace the administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which they consider illegitimate because it came to power with the backing of the army in a 2008 parliamentary vote.
They are mostly supporters of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup. A controversial court ruling ejected his elected allies from power, paving the way for Abhisit\’s government to be appointed.
Many countries have warned their nations against travelling to Thailand. Australia Wednesday said travellers should not visit Bangkok, citing the deteriorating security situation.