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.
"I'm quite confident," Wanpot Chiewcharn said, standing amid a pile of stones he has amassed behind the barricade of bamboo poles and tires that is the western edge of the protest site.
By dawn Wednesday, Mr. Wanpot was likely reassessing as the military roared in.
A fruit farmer in the province of Chiang Mai in normal times, Mr. Wanpot spent two years in the army 30 years ago. These days, the 53-year-old is part of a newly armed organization, albeit a crudely equipped one, that could be called the paramilitary wing of the Red Shirt protest movement. While the main body of the protesters is still trying to claim they are non-violent, the Black Shirts, as they're known after the colour the guards wear, say they are ready and willing to fight.
Led until recently by the assassinated "Red General" Khattiya Sawasdipol, some received hand-to-hand combat training in sessions that were held months before the anti-government protests began. The black-shirted fighters are both the defenders of the Red Shirt camp, and arguably the movement's biggest liability now that its leaders are again calling for a negotiated solution to the crisis.
Several hundred Black Shirts guard the medieval-looking fort that surrounds the Red Shirt camp. It's unclear how much co-ordination there is between the two groups.
"We're not nervous. We believe in what we're doing," said Suriyathep Pitaksettee, a 43-year-old grocer and army veteran who is among a core group of Black Shirts that sport red scarves around their necks and are assigned to protect the top Red leaders as well as the main stage area at the centre of the protest site. Mr. Suriyathep said the core group consisted of about 100 men, all ex-soldiers.
Mr. Suriyathep said the Black Shirts received free food and cigarettes from the Red Shirt leadership, but no other payment. He said they possessed no weapons other than the stones and sharpened bamboo poles that are stockpiled around the camp, but warned that a time might soon come when they would be forced to acquire other arms.
The government calls the Black Shirts "terrorists," and alleges they are on the payroll of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Government spokesman Mr. Panitan said the government and military have for the past few days been trying to isolate the fighters from the main body of protesters, some 5,000 of whom remained in the Red camp Tuesday in defiance of a government order for them to leave.
"For the first time, an armed element has been embedded [in the protest movement]" Mr. Panitan said. "This armed element is the least understood, because it's new."
The government rejected a Red Shirt call for a ceasefire, saying the protesters needed to disperse before any new negotiations can occur. It also declared the rest of the week would be a "holiday" in Bangkok and told businesses and government offices to stay closed.
The Thai military has distributed videos that appear to show black-shirted protesters using rifles to target soldiers, and several blasts around the city have been attributed to M-79 grenades fired by the protesters. But even if they do possess weapons that they don't display in public, the black shirted fighters on the barricades are clearly outgunned and they know it.
"We will use firecrackers to scare the soldiers off. If they continue, we will burn tires. If they still continue, I will try and find a place to hide," said Hiam Sukrod, a 32-year-old farmer who was identified by other Black Shirts as the man responsible for heading up the defence of the camp's easternmost entrance.
It's a bizarre strategy that both undermines the efforts of the main Red Shirt leaders to portray the movement as a peaceful uprising while at the same time offering the Black Shirts almost no hope of winning their deadly and spreading confrontation with the army. Of those killed in the fighting that began Thursday, only one was a soldier.
It's nonetheless a plan that seems to have been made well in advance. Mr. Hiam said he and some of the other Black Shirts attended a camp outside Bangkok in January where people he described as dissident soldiers currently serving in the Thai army trained him for exactly the sort of close-quarters combat that may now be unfolding as troops storm the Red defences.
The Red Shirts were led by Gen. Khattiya, a dissident officer who joined the protest movement and who was viewed as the commander of the Black Shirts. Gen. Khattiya was shot by a sniper last week and later died in hospital, an assassination that many believe was a government attempt to weaken the Black Shirts ahead of the fighting that has raged since then.
With reports from Reuters and the Associated Press