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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.

When we got to within 400 metres of the still-intact western wall of the Red fort, we started going forward with our hands raised, shouting in Thai and English that we were foreign journalists. The familiar tire gate was now sealed shut, but there was no one guarding it. At another hospital, the director said they had already received 13 wounded, as well as the first fatality of the day, an Italian journalist.

Sobered, we pressed on to the Rajprasong stage area. There, life was continuing much as it had for the past month, even with soldiers and armoured personnel carriers now just a few blocks south - but with one ominous difference: the Red leadership was nowhere to be found. The men who had encouraged tens of thousands to risk their lives in the name of "democracy" - paralyzing the commercial heart of Bangkok in the process - had disappeared and left their followers to fend for themselves.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, located on the top floor of a building in the middle of the Red protest area, offered air conditioning and a peek down on the situation from above. Soldiers were advancing on Rajprasong from the south, and smoke rose from battles raging in two other neighbourhoods to the north where Red Shirts were rallying.













Red Shirt protesters could be seen lighting the Chit Lom station of Bangkok's SkyTrain system ablaze, ostensibly to keep soldiers from advancing over the tracks. An hour later, fighters broke into the 45-storey Central World shopping mall, looting and then torching what was once one of the city's most popular destinations.

Suddenly, the gunfire that had been crackling through the city since dawn came to a halt. After half an hour, a text message announced that the military had declared a temporary pause in its operations. It was an opportunity to head back out to the main stage, to see if anyone remained at the heart of the Red camp.

A hardy band of Red fighters sat in the shade, slingshots and a pair of Molotov cocktails at the ready, as they kept a lookout for soldiers approaching the camp. They admitted that they wanted to leave, but could not figure out how to reach their vehicles.

At the Red stage, a lone woman remained where tens of thousands had once rallied almost every night. "I keep my promises," was the simple answer given by 45-year-old Pusdee Ngamcam, a retired nurse. "I promised not to leave until [the government]dissolved parliament. They haven't dissolved parliament, so I'm still here. I don't know where everyone else is gone."

But Ms. Pusdee was the only protester, or at least the only non-violent one, who had such courage of her convictions. All around her lay toppled plastic chairs and deserted straw mats. A sign reading "Peaceful Protesters, Not Terrorists" hung over a stage that was silent for the first time in weeks.

A short walk along Rama I Road, past the now-burning Central World shopping centre, revealed where many of Ms. Pusdee's comrades had gone. As the government repeatedly told protesters to leave the Rajprasong site, warning of violence and prison terms if they remained, the Red leaders asked their followers to stay, suggesting they would be safe in Wat Pathum if the army ever did move against the Red camp.

Inside was the backbone of the Red Shirt movement - the poor farmers and villagers who had come out to oppose a government they believe favours the elites - leaderless and terrified. Even while the sun was still up, some were bedding down in anticipation of a long stay. Others ran back and forth to the deserted protest site, gathering food, water and medicine.

"We will sleep here tonight because outside is very dangerous," Pai, a 45-year-old mother of three, said as she made a crude mattress out of potato chip bags. "We can't go anywhere else. We don't know who will shoot at us."

Her words proved prescient. As evening arrived and an 8 p.m. curfew approached, a tense situation exploded in sudden violence. Shots cracked out just as Andrew, Rob and I were preparing to leave, sending Andrew diving for cover and Rob and I sprinting to the back of the temple.

Someone had tossed two fireworks toward the soldiers, who by now were in control of the stage area, drawing a furious response. A gun battle raged in the fading light and into the threatening dark that followed.

As bullets whizzed into the supposed sanctuary of the temple, Rob and I took refuge with a pair of young monks who allowed us into their quarters. They had an Internet connection, allowing us to see for the first time in hours just how dangerous the area around us had become. Their television set proved less useful, as a government order had gone out prohibiting live coverage of the crackdown.

As I surfed various news sites for clues about how long we might be trapped in the temple, I got a heart-stopping phone call. It was Andrew. "Mate, I've been shot," he said.

He was still near the front gate, bleeding profusely from six shotgun pellets embedded in his right thigh. There were volunteer medics with him, but the gunfire was so intense that they couldn't take him to the hospital directly across the street.

They took him the other way instead, into the royal park behind the temple, where they dressed his wounds at a makeshift field hospital and laid him out on a lawn chair beside six other groaning gunshot victims.

There was little we could do except call for help. Rob and I worked our mobile phones, raising the alarm at the Canadian and British embassies, as well as the hospitals and office of the man who ordered the crackdown, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. I used my BlackBerry to ask those following me on Twitter to spread the word that people were under fire and dying in Wat Pathum.

We knew we were taking advantage of our special status in Thailand as foreigners and journalists to get ourselves out of a situation into which we had willingly put ourselves. But we had no other choice. Not only was Andrew unable to move, another man two mattresses away looked on the verge of death, having been shot in the back.

Long hours passed. The gunfire subsided, then roared again. Mysterious explosions went off in the dark. The panic level rose.

Just as we were preparing to spend the night in the temple park - with Andrew complaining that his leg was going numb - I got a series of phone calls from an aid worker somewhere in the city. I couldn't make out her name, but she had wonderful news. A ceasefire had been arranged so that ambulances could approach the temple and take Andrew and the other wounded to hospital.

We carried the stretchers out one by one into street where the red ambulance lights cast a surreal glow on the debris around us. Andrew insisted we carry him last in case they had only come to rescue the foreigner, but those left behind still looked enviously at us as we left.

An ambulance attendant asked me to go back into the temple and pass on the message that they would try and come back in the morning for at least the women and old people, as well as anyone else who was wounded.

It was small comfort to those left to spend the night in Wat Pathum. The morning was far away, and the men with guns were far closer.

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