BANGKOK, Thailand – Thai soldiers with armored vehicles stormed into a fortified encampment occupied by anti-government protesters today, breaking through bamboo-and-tire barricades in a major military offensive in the heart of Bangkok.
At least two protesters were killed and one foreign journalist appeared dead after getting shot in the chest. Two other foreign journalists were wounded by bullets.
Surreal scenes of warfare erupted in one of the ritziest parts of the capital, as troops armed with M-16s marched through the central business district past upscale apartment buildings to retake the area around manicured Lumpini Park, which has been under the control of protesters camped there for weeks.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn declared the first stage of the army operation to secure the area around Lumpini Park successful and said that some protest leaders had fled. He asked the public to inform police if any of the leaders were spotted.
However, two of the three key leaders remained in the protest zone giving defiant speeches and singing on a stage, as troops drew closer.
An Associated Press reporter who followed the troops into the protest camp saw the bodies of two men sprawled on the ground, one with a head wound and other apparently shot in the upper body. They were the first known casualties in the assault that began before dawn on a 1-square-mile stretch of downtown Bangkok that protesters have occupied.
Troops fired M-16 rifles at fleeing protesters and shouted, “Come out and surrender or we’ll kill you.”
Panitan went on national television four hours after the crackdown began to announce it was under way.
“The operations will continue throughout the day,” Panitan said. “We would like to reassure the citizens of Bangkok that the operations are designed to make sure we stabilize the area.”
The army action came after weeks of defiance by the protesters who are seeking to oust the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The violence in Bangkok, a popular stop for tourists heading to Thailand’s world-famous beaches, has caused concern internationally and raised doubts about the stability of this Southeast Asian nation.