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An armoured vehicle is obscured by smoke from a burning barricade during an operation to evict anti-government "red shirt" protesters from their encampment in Bangkok on May 19, 2010. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)
An armoured vehicle is obscured by smoke from a burning barricade during an operation to evict anti-government "red shirt" protesters from their encampment in Bangkok on May 19, 2010. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

In a Bangkok Buddhist temple, the groans of the wounded shot seeking sanctuary Add to ...

It was supposed to have been a safe haven, a place where those who didn't want to fight could take refuge from the violence and anarchy in Thailand's capital. But on Wednesday night, the Wat Pathum Buddhist temple was instead a place of death and terror as perhaps 1,500 civilians huddled inside as the fighting raged all around.

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The people massed inside the white-walled temple complex were the remnants of the suddenly fractured Red Shirt protest movement. They sought shelter there after the Thai army launched an assault on their protest camp Wednesday morning, sparking gun battles that left more than a dozen people dead and at least 60 more injured around the city. As the movement's leaders either fled or surrendered to the security forces, hard-line Red Shirts launched a guerrilla war that soon had parts of the city in flames. Left leaderless and unwilling to fight, the confused rank-and-file began assembling in Wat Pathum, hoping they would be safe inside the holy place.

Monks chanted and the wounded whimpered as explosions went off nearby and bullets whizzed overhead. Seven corpses, two of them medics, were laid out in a row in the royal park, not far from where men, women and the elderly cowered. Another 10 people were injured, including Andrew Buncombe from the British newspaper, The Independent.

"You can go out, right? Take me," one woman pleaded as I tried to arrange a rescue for Andrew and the other wounded. A dozen other times, those inside the temple asked when the United Nations was coming to rescue them.

The day had begun in dramatic fashion. After nine weeks of crippling protests and six days of deadly clashes with Red Shirts around Bangkok, the army had begun a final assault on the main protest camp in the city centre. Armoured personnel carriers crashed through the crude bamboo-and-tire fortress the anti-government demonstrators had built to defend themselves.

Several of the protesters surrendered to police. Others fled and tried to find a safe place. Still others fanned out across the city, venting their anger by attacking, looting and setting fire to at least 27 downtown buildings, including the Thai stock exchange and at least 16 bank branches. Outside the capital, town halls were torched in three northern areas. Rioting spread to seven provinces from where many of the anti-government protesters hail, as the government extended the curfew to 24 provinces.

Thai soldiers carry a wounded comrade on a stretcher.

Though the majority of the Red Shirts had been honest in saying they were unarmed and peaceful protesters seeking the ouster of a prime minister they viewed as illegitimate, fierce battles quickly broke out between the army and a small group of protesters who had assembled weapons - slingshots, Molotov cocktails and at least some assault rifles - and were ready to fight.

Andrew and I met outside the Red zone and decided we wanted to be inside the protest site, to be sure of seeing with our own eyes whatever came next.

Along with Rob Donnellan, a Thai-speaking British resident of Bangkok who had agreed to translate for us for the day, we walked north to Chulalongkorn Hospital, near the scene of the first clashes, where we thought we would be reasonably safe. Doctors there were anxiously preparing the emergency room for casualties as a battle raged a few hundred metres from their front door.

But the military was moving more quickly than expected, closing in on a stage at the once-buzzing Rajprasong intersection where the Red Shirts gathered each night to listen to pop songs and fiery speeches from their leaders.

Worried that we were too late and terrified that we were going to be walking into a firefight, the three of us headed north along a road parallel to the army's advance, passing nervously through military checkpoints. The soldiers laughed when we told them we were heading to the Red camp, but waved us through, promising they would not be the ones who shot at us.

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