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After days of bloodshed, Thai military poised to put its foot down

A redshirt protester hides from the bullets coming from the military as the violence in central Bangkok continues May 16, 2010 in Bangkok, Thailand.

Paula Bronstein/Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

Thailand's military looks set to make a final push to oust the thousands of anti-government protesters camped in the centre of Bangkok, warning women, children and the elderly to leave the main demonstration area by Monday after three days of bloody street battles that have left at least 36 people dead and more than 200 others injured.

Telling his country "we cannot retreat now," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected a call by leaders of the Red Shirt protest movement for United Nations-mediated peace talks, saying Thailand needed no such help. In a televised statement, Mr. Abhisit reiterated that the ongoing military operation was the only way to end the two-month-old crisis, which has now left 60 people dead in off-and-on clashes.

Acknowledging indirectly that the violence is likely to continue for several more days, the government postponed the start of the new school semester, which was supposed to begin Monday, until next week. Monday and Tuesday were declared "holidays" in an effort to keep Bangkok residents at home and off the streets.

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Both the government and the Red Shirts have warned that the situation is veering toward civil war, and over the weekend parts of this city of 15 million people already had that feel about them. Stores are shuttered and streets devoid of traffic in much of the city centre, with the crackle of gunfire - interspersed with the loud bangs made by the firecrackers and Molotov cocktails employed by the protesters - providing the only soundtrack. Black pillars of smoke from burning tires and at least three torched buildings rose over the skyline.

The short walk down Soi Goethe, an alley just south of one of the main battlegrounds on the city's Rama IV Road, reveals how chaotic and fluid the situation on Bangkok's streets now is, as well as how either orders or poor training were hampering the army's effort to crack down on the small groups of protesters operating outside of the fortified main site.

I walked down Soi Goethe at the instruction of a group of soldiers crouching behind sand bags and barbed wire, who assured me the route was safe. At the other end of the winding back alley, I emerged on another narrow street, Soi Ngam Duphli, behind a handful of Red Shirt protesters who had built a wall of tires and were firing firecrackers at the main military position on Rama IV.

If the Thai soldiers - or a police unit equipped with riot gear - had taken the same short walk, they could have quickly cornered and arrested the protesters. Instead, soldiers took up positions in tall buildings nearby and fired live rounds at the Red Shirt position, as residents of nearby buildings scrambled for their lives.

"For three days, no sleep. Just bombs," said Alun, a 45-year-old taxi driver who lives with his wife and three young children in an apartment on Ngam Duphli. Alun was shirtless, exposing a wide torso covered in tattoos. "I took off my shirt so the soldiers don't think I'm a Red Shirt. Many Red Shirts are getting killed."

The battle on Rama IV also illustrated how futile the Red Shirts battle against the Thai military appears to be. The standoff continued for hours on end, with protesters stepping occasionally out into the main street to launch fireworks that usually exploded noisily but harmlessly over the soldiers heads. Each defiant launch drew a potentially deadly retort.

After initially using rubber bullets and tear gas, as well as occasional live rounds, to during earlier clashes, the army by Sunday seemed to be using only lethal ammunition. No soldiers had been reported killed in the fighting over the weekend, though five were killed in a failed crackdown attempt last month.

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As the violence raged on Rama IV and two other locations in the north of the city, the army gradually tightened its ring around the main Red Shirt protest camp, where thousands of protesters remain camped behind a thick barricade of bamboo poles and tires. Military checkpoints now surround the protest area - which encompasses three square kilometres of what was until recently Bangkok's commercial heart - in an effort to cut off the demonstrators' supplies of food, water and fuel.

The military said they would allow Red Cross to enter the site to evacuate women, children and the elderly by 3 a.m. ET Monday. "Men can also leave the site but they have to show they are unarmed," army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd told reporters.

Rather than evacuating the site, Red Shirt leaders suggested that anyone who was worried about the threat of looming violence move into a Buddhist temple in the middle of the protest area. By nightfall Sunday, the temple grounds were crowded with dozens of women and children sleeping on straw mats.

Those directing the protest remained defiant, calling for more Red Shirt supporters - many of whom hail from poor rural areas of the country - to flock to the capital and join either the main camp or new demonstrations that have broken out around the city. "We're not going anywhere," Red leader Jatuporn Prompan said in an interview conducted behind the main protest stage. "I believe there will be a civil war if the government will not stop the killing."

Mr. Jatuporn said the Red Shirts, who say they have enough supplies to hold out for "days," were willing to enter into a reconciliation process if the military declared an immediate cease fire. The government, however, said the protesters should first disperse.

The Red Shirts, who began their protests March 12, view Mr. Abhisit's government, which came to power through a backroom parliamentary deal, as illegitimate and are demanding snap elections. Many are supporters of the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup after winning back-to-back elections.

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Many of the Red Shirts come from the north and northeast of the country, where smaller protests have also broken out in recent days. Fearing that the conflict could spread, the government expanded its state-of-emergency to five more provinces on Sunday, bringing to 22 the number of regions where the military now has expanded powers.

As the violence raged Sunday, the Thai Red Cross issued an urgent call for more blood donations, warning they only had one day's supply left. However, few would-be donors could reach the National Blood Centre, which sits in the middle of the conflict zone, between the army's new checkpoints and the Red Shirt fortress.

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