Asia-Pacific

Thai protest leaders surrender as troops storm camp

Leaders of the anti-government protests that have paralysed the heart of Bangkok for weeks have surrendered, after troops stormed their barricades.

At least five people have been killed in the gun battles in the Thai capital, and the demonstration leaders said they did not want anyone else to die.

But some of the so-called red-shirt protesters vowed to fight on.

Fires were started across the city, including at the stock exchange, banks, a huge shopping mall and a TV station.

The Thai government imposed a night-time curfew and ordered television channels to broadcast only official-sanctioned programmes.

Pockets of resistance

In the north-east of the country, a town hall in Udon Thani was set on fire and another, at Khon Kaen, was wrecked.

In Bangkok, the main rally stage area was empty.

Four protest leaders were seen on TV arriving at police headquarters.

Before he was led away, Jatuporn Prompan said from the stage: "I apologise to you all, but I don't want any more losses. I am devastated too," reports news agency Reuters.

The leaders earlier urged supporters not to give up the fight for political change.

Army spokesman Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd labelled them as terrorists.

Defiant protesters attacked shops and property and there were reports of looting.

One of South East Asia's biggest shopping malls, Bangkok's Central World Plaza, was gutted by fire.

'D-Day'

Protesters started a fire at the offices of a TV station, Channel 3, while staff were inside, said fire department officials.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanyagorn told the BBC that pockets of resistance remained in a number of places.

"We will initiate operations throughout the night in several areas in order to stabilise the situation," he said.

The military said the operation had been halted to allow several thousand protesters to leave the rally zone.

An Italian photojournalist was killed, while three other reporters, a Dutch, an American and a Canadian, were among scores of people injured.

The assault began on Wednesday morning with soldiers in armoured vehicles smashing through the bamboo-and-tyre barricades, as helicopters circled above.

The military used loudspeakers to warn beforehand of the impending assault on the fortified encampment, which extends for several kilometres.

"This is D-Day," one soldier was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency.

Troops armed with M-16 rifles marched through the central business district, as thick black smoke from mountains of burning tyres billowed over skyscrapers.

They stormed the Lumpini Park area, where demonstrators fled, leaving scattered shoes, overturned chairs and hanging laundry.

The violence follows six days of clashes around the camp, triggered by a government operation to seal the area and the subsequent death of a renegade general who backed the protests.

About 40 people have been killed since last week.

The red-shirts have been protesting in Bangkok since 14 March, occupying the shopping district, forcing hotels and shops to close.

They are a loose coalition of left-wing activists, democracy campaigners and mainly rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

They are demanding fresh polls because they say the government - which came to power through a parliamentary deal rather than an election - is illegitimate.