BANGKOK – Leaders of demonstrations that plunged the Thai capital into chaos Tuesday called off their protests following rioting and clashes that left two dead and more than 120 injured across Bangkok. Several were then taken into police custody.
About 2,000 die-hard protesters abandoned their encampment around the seat of government, as combat troops ringed the demonstrators' last stronghold making preparations for a crackdown.
Thailand's Deputy Police Commissioner Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit told The Associated Press that four of the protest leaders had surrendered and would be interrogated. They were seen taken away to nearby police headquarters.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said it was not clear if all the protest leaders had turned themselves in.
"We have decided to call off the rally today because many brothers and sisters have been hurt and killed. We don't want everybody to suffer the same. And we will not allow more deaths," said key protest leader Suporn Attawong.
Another protest leader, Jatuporn Phromphan, also said the movement, which is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and new elections, "will continue fighting. Everything will continue." The leaders did not specify what action they would take next.
The protesters flashed victory signs and shed tears as they walked away or boarded buses provided them by the military.
"I don't feel that we lost. We were only in a disadvantageous position. We only had heart. We didn't have weapons," said Siri Kadmai, a 45-year-old worker.
Nant Weema, a 48-year-old vendor, said the protesters would have been killed if they had not given up. "I feel sorry that the country ends up this way. I can't see justice in the future of our children," he said.
Earlier, army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd had said troops were ready to move against the protesters, who had been encamped around Government House since March 26, and Jatuporn had vowed that they would make their last stand there.
Sansern said that by early Tuesday only 2,000 protesters remained around Government House — the demonstrations had swelled to 100,000 last week. He said the soldiers were relying on water cannons, tear gas and clubs and using automatic weapons only when necessary to disperse crowds threatening them.
By nightfall Monday, clashes that had gripped several parts of the city, wounding 123 people, had ebbed. But as the demonstrators tried to make their way back to their base around Government House, deadly fighting erupted between them and residents.
Most of Bangkok's newspapers, irrespective of their political leanings, lashed out at the protesters with editorials describing them as "thugs" and "urban terrorists."
Abhisit praised the efforts of security forces, saying they used "soft means" and "prevented as much damage as possible," though ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — the man most protesters consider their leader — accused the military of covering up the number of people killed in the day's battles.
Abhisit said the news that two people had been killed and 12 wounded in a gunbattle between protesters and residents at Nang Lerng market was "a regrettable incident." But he said that "with the cooperation of the public, I believe success (in restoring peace) is near."
Political tensions have simmered since 2006 when Thaksin was ousted by a military coup amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power, a year after he won re-election in a landslide. He remains popular in the impoverished countryside for his populist policies.
Since then, political tensions have run high between his supporters, known as "red shirts," and the so-called "yellow shirts," a mix of royalists, academics, professionals and retired military who oppose the former prime minister.
Last year, the yellow shirts shut down Bangkok's two main airports, ending their demonstrations only after a court disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister on complaints of fraud in the 2007 elections. Abhisit was later appointed prime minister.
The red shirts took to the streets last month, using tactics similar to those of their rivals last year. They accuse the country's elite — the military, judiciary and other unelected officials — of interfering in politics, and are seeking Thaksin's rehabilitation. Their numbers grew to 100,000 in Bangkok last week.
Protesters stationed themselves at a half-dozen points in Bangkok during the day on Monday, defying government-imposed state-of-emergency measures that ban gatherings of more than five people.
Monday night's fighting came as protesters moved back toward their base outside the prime minister's offices at Government House, where they have been holding out since March 26. An estimated 5,000 protesters are gathered there.
Hundreds of protesters and residents faced off outside the market, Police Col. Rangsan Praditpon said, and hurled Molotov cocktails and shot at one another. It was not clear who fired first.
"The protesters were upset that the vendors were giving food and water to the soldiers and cheering them on," he said. "The vendors in the evening became more angry when protesters threatened to burn down their houses. Both sides were armed."
Earlier Monday, protesters hijacked and torched public buses to block several key intersections, set tires and vehicles on fire and sent two unmanned buses, one of them burning, hurtling toward lines of soldiers.
They hurled a small explosive into the Army Headquarters compound, burning an armored vehicle, and when a building in the Education Ministry compound caught fire, they attempted to block approaching fire trucks.
In a confrontation near Victory Monument, a major traffic circle, a line of troops in full battle gear fired volleys of M-16 fire over the heads of protesters, and turned water cannons on the crowd.
The army spokesman said troops fired blanks into the crowds and live shots overhead. But in an appearance on CNN, Thaksin — who most of the protesters consider their leader — accused the military of lying, saying soldiers used live ammunition, killed protesters and dragged away their bodies.
"They shot people. Many died. Many people were injured," he said.
The protesters also said more than the officially reported number died but Abhisit dismissed Thaksin's assertion, saying "if there were that many people killed, it would not have escaped the eye of the media."
The government said the day's clashes had killed two and wounded 123.