Thousands of Thai troops, backed by armoured personnel carriers and helicopters on Wednesday began what the government said was a final move to clear the 5,000 Red Shirt protesters camped in the Thail capital of Bangkok, an operation that follows five days of deadly violence.
"This is D-Day," said one soldier when asked if this was the final push to clear the protest zone.
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 Wednesday on a 3-square kilometre 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."
An AP photographer saw three foreign journalists shot. One was an Italian photographer shot in the chest. His eyes were rolled back and he showed no signs of life. A Dutch journalist walked into the hospital with a bullet wound in his shoulder. The third journalist was a 53-year-old American documentary filmmaker who was treated for a shot in the leg.
The photographer also saw at least seven Thais brought to a hospital. It was unknown if they were dead or unconscious.
At a military checkpoint on Henri Dunant Road, Lieutenant Colonel Yodchai Paungwarin, said the strategy was to advance from the south up Bangkok's Silom Road towards the main Red stage at the Rajprasong intersection.
His troops crouched, pointing rifles at a western entrance to the fortified camp some 400 metres away, but were allowing unarmed Red Shirts to leave, he said.
"They put their hands up to show they had no weapons, and we let them out," he said.
At the nearby Police Hospital, the closest to the centre of the Red Shirt camp, hospital director Surapong Pongaram said they had received 13 casualties by noon Bangkok time, six of whom had been injured by gunshots, including an Italian journalist who was killed in the early fighting.
Mr. Surapong said he had been given no advance warning of the assault, but didn't need any. "This has been going on for two months," he said, referring to the Red Shirt protests that began March 12. "We've been practicing and having meetings every day."
As troops entered the fringes of the protest area, they passed smoldering fires and hastily abandoned campsites where clothes were still hanging on laundry lines. Shoes were scattered, chairs were overturned and a huge pile of rice was covered with flies.
Mr. Panitan went on national television four hours after the crackdown began to announce it was under way, speaking first in Thai and then in English.
"The operations will continue throughout the day," Mr. Panitan said. "We would like to reassure the citizens of Bangkok that the operations are designed to make sure we stabilize the area."
On the other side of the barricades, the standoff on Phaya Thai Road, one of half a dozen gates into the fortified Red Shirt protest camp in the middle of Bangkok, is clearly a desperately uneven one, pitting soldiers with assault rifles against protesters with bamboo poles and slingshots.
But in this David-and-Goliath conflict, the man with the slingshot insists he has an edge. He used to be a soldier, something that he believes will give him an edge in a battle against the army he once served in.