BANGKOK: At least five people, including an Italian journalist, were killed Wednesday during an army crackdown on an anti-government protest site in Bangkok, police and a hospital said.
“An Italian man was shot and died before arriving at the hospital,” said Police Hospital director Jongjet Aoajenpong. “He’s a journalist. He was shot in the stomach,” he added.
Meanwhile elite troops deployed in the protest-hit capital have been authorised to shoot on sight people looting, committing arson or inciting unrest, a police spokesman has said.
“Metropolitan Police deployed about 1,000 rapid movement troops and if they find looting, arson or anybody inciting unrest, police are authorised to shoot immediately,” said police spokesman Major General Piya Uthayo.
News of the deaths follows the army’s early morning strategy in which they smashed through protesters’ tyres and razor wire barricades.
Amid the chaos leaders of Thailand’s anti-government protest movement said they will surrender shortly, lawmakers and police have said.
Senator Lertrat Rattanavanich, who has been involved in failed mediation efforts, said senior Reds including Jatuporn Prompan, who are still at the centre of their Bangkok encampment, would turn themselves in at 0600 GMT.
Gunfire has been exchanged in clashes in the encampment, which the “Red Shirts” have occupied for six weeks, defying a military containment operation launched last Thursday that left 39 dead.
In the face of the barrage, some 100 other protesters fled towards the movement’s main rally stage in the heart of their sprawling encampment, which has shut down Bangkok’s main shopping district.
Reds leaders tried to quell a rising sense of panic among some 5,000 supporters including many women and children who are still inside the rally base despite the violence and orders to leave.
Some were openly crying and others put on face masks in fear of tear gas attacks.
“Please stay calm today, no matter what happens we will stay here together,” leader Nattawut Saikuar said from the stage where protesters were gathered for safety, directing them to a nearby Buddhist temple if necessary.
“Those who fear for your life go to the temple, but those who volunteer to stay here you are free to do so.”
The government said the offensive was aimed at establishing a secure perimeter around the protest base, but the military offensive now appeared to be aimed at completely closing down the camp.
“The operations are designed to make sure that the security officers can provide security and safety to the public at large. The operations will continue throughout the day,” said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.
“We would like to reassure the citizens and residents of Bangkok that the operations are designed to make sure that we stabilise the area,” he said in a televised address.
Hundreds of army and police advanced towards the protest zone in the pre-dawn hours, with trucks dropping off troops wearing balaclavas and carrying weapons and riot shields, while a helicopter circled overhead.
Several large fires broke out at barricades and major buildings around the protest zone, sending out massive clouds of black smoke that obscured the Bangkok skyline.
Dozens of soldiers crept along Wireless Road, which runs parallel to the protest zone, crouching behind trees and poles and scurrying up foot bridges near the US embassy, which has been closed.
“Danger zone,” one soldier said, waving reporters back as muffled cracks rang out from nearby Lumpini park, which the protesters had spilled into during an occupation that has forced hotels and shopping centres to close.
Security forces have battled with the Reds since last Thursday as they attempted to seal off the rally base, turning parts of the city into no-go zones as troops used live ammunition against protesters, who fought back mainly with homemade weapons.
The Reds are campaigning for elections to replace the administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which they consider illegitimate because it came to power with the backing of the army in a 2008 parliamentary vote.
They are mostly supporters of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup. A controversial court ruling ejected his elected allies from power, paving the way for Abhisit’s government to be appointed.
Many countries have warned their nations against travelling to Thailand. Australia Wednesday said travellers should not visit Bangkok, citing the deteriorating security situation.