Thai troops opened fire Wednesday into the fortified encampment of anti-government protesters in downtown Bangkok, ramming armored vehicles into its tire-and-bamboo barricade in what appears to be a final crackdown after a week of deadly clashes.
Associated Press reporters saw the troops firing automatic rifles from an overpass overlooking the encampment. Groups of soldiers also fired from crouching positions on the tracks of an elevated light rail system that runs over the encampment. There was no word on any casualties.
"This is D-Day," said one soldier when asked if this was the final push to clear the protest zone.
Thick black smoke from a mountain of burning tires darkened the skies Wednesday, billowing over the skyscrapers of this Asian metropolis of 10 million that has descended into chaos over the last week, with at least 39 killed.
The demonstrators marched into Bangkok in mid-March to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, dissolution of Parliament and immediate elections.
They created an encampment in Bangkok's posh downtown Rajprasong district in April, surrounding themselves by a barricade of tires and bamboo spears, some of which appeared to be in flames Wednesday.
"This is the last push. Looks like the government really wants to end it this time," said Senator Lertrat Rattanawanit, who had tried to mediate between the two sides. "They have laid out the steps, giving out deadlines for people to move out and all that. It's a pity that using force is inevitable."
Asked if losses could be prevented, he said: "It's impossible."
At the protest zone's barricades, bamboo spears splintered as two armored personnel carrier rammed into the barrier, then backed up and tried again. They repeated the process several times and punched large holes, pushing the wall into a crumpled mass but not bringing it down entirely.
An army commander said some Red Shirt protesters were about 200 yards inside the barricade.
Soldiers tightened their blockades around the protest site at dawn Wednesday and used loudspeakers to tell all people to return to their homes. A government building was on fire in another part of Bangkok.
The government first tried to clear another encampment in the historic part of Bangkok on April 10, but the operation ended disastrously when 25 people were killed and more than 800 wounded.
A second military operation, to blockade the consolidated Rajprasong camp to cut off protesters' supplies, was launched last Thursday, triggering almost daily clashes between troops and protesters. At least 39 people have been killed and more than 300 people wounded in the past seven days. All but one of those killed are civilians who were shot.
Wednesday's assault began with hundreds of troops and police, many armed with M-16 assault rifles, gathering in nearby streets and alleys before dawn.
Three armored personnel carriers parked in front of the upscale Dusit Thani hotel, across the street from the southern edge of the barricade. Their machine gun mountain turrets pointed toward the barricade wall of tires, and troops crouched behind the vehicles.
The operation came after Abhisit rejected protesters' unconditional offer to negotiate Tuesday and insisted there would be no talks until the dwindling anti-government movement
The troops appeared to be pushing from the southern border of the encampment in a bid to force some 3,000 protesters still holed up inside into buses waiting at the northern exit.
The Red Shirts say Abhisit's government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it goes against results of a 2007 election to restore democracy after a military coup.
Protest leaders have argued over whether they should continue to resist or negotiate a truce with the government to end the street violence.
On Tuesday, the mood in the core protest zone was subdued, with none of the dancing and festivities that previously lent the area a carnival-like atmosphere.
Periodically, protest leaders delivered fiery speeches, meant to keep the crowd motivated. But the crowd responses were not as full throated as before. Gone also were most food vendors, 전라남도출장만남
and mounds of rotting garbage piled up outside the camp's sharpened bamboo gates.
Previous attempts to negotiate an end to the standoff have failed. A government offer earlier this month to hold November elections fell apart after protest leaders made more demands.
The violence in Bangkok, a popular stop for tourists heading to Thailand's world-famous beaches, has caused concern internationally and raised doubts about the stability of this Southeast Asian nation.