Thailand will impose a curfew and send Red Cross workers to evacuate women, children and the elderly from Bangkok's deadly protest zone where 25 people have been killed in three days of rolling street battles between anti-government activists and soldiers.
A towering column of black smoke rose over the city Sunday as protesters facing off with troops set fire to tires serving as a barricade. Elsewhere, they doused a police traffic post with gasoline and torched it.
The spiraling violence has raised concerns of sustained, widespread chaos in Thailand — a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia's most popular tourist destination that promotes its easygoing culture as the "Land of Smiles."
Speaking on his weekly television program, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva insisted the military operation to quell protests was the answer in ending the country's two-month-long crisis.
"Overall, I insist the best way to prevent losses is to stop the protest. The protest creates conditions for violence to occur. We do realize at the moment that the role of armed groups is increasing each day," he said.
The Red Shirt protesters have occupied a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) zone, barricaded by tires and bamboo spikes, in one of the capital's ritziest areas, Rajprasong, for about two months to push their demands for Abhisit to resign immediately, dissolve Parliament and call new elections.
Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd announced on national television the government will send the Red Cross and voluntary organizations into the protest zone to "invite or persuade people, especially women, children and older people to leave the area."
About 5,000 people are believed camped in the protest zone, down from about 10,000 before fighting started Thursday after a sniper shot and seriously wounded a Red Shirt leader.
It quickly spread to nearby areas, which became a no-man's land after the army set up barriers in a wider perimeter around Rajprasong. The area already resembled a curfew zone with no public transport or private vehicles. Most shops, hotels and businesses in the area are also shut. The government has shut off power and water supplies to the core protest zone. Schools were ordered shut Monday in all of Bangkok.
At least 54 people have been killed and more than 1,600 wounded since the protests began mid-March, according to the government. The dead include 25 killed since Thursday.
Sansern said the government has decided to impose a curfew in the violence-hit areas. The timing and the exact locations will be announced later, he said.
On Saturday, soldiers blocked major roads and pinned up notices of a "Live Firing Zone" in one area of Bangkok.
Protesters launched a steady stream of rudimentary missiles at troops who fired back with live ammunition in several areas around a key commercial district of Bangkok.
Army snipers were perched with high-powered rifles atop tall buildings, viewing the action below through telescopic sights. Thick black smoke billowed from tires set ablaze by demonstrators as gunfire rang out.
Demonstrators dragged away the bodies of three people from sidewalks — shot by army snipers, they claimed.
The clashes are the most prolonged and deadliest bout of political violence that Thailand has faced in decades despite having a history of coups — 18 since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
The crisis appeared to be near a resolution last week when Abhisit offered to hold elections in November, a year early. But the hopes were dashed after Red Shirt leaders made more demands.
The political uncertainty has spooked foreign investors and damaged the vital tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy, Southeast Asia's second largest.
The Red Shirts, drawn mostly from the rural and urban poor, say Abhisit's coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it symbolizes a national elite indifferent to the poor.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch on Saturday called on the Thai government to revoke the fire zones and negotiate an end to the fighting.
"By setting out these 'live fire zones' the Thai authorities are on a slippery slope toward serious abuses. It's a small step for soldiers to think `live fire zone' means `free fire zone,' especially as violence escalates," the rights watchdog said in a statement.
The Red Shirts especially despise the military, which forced Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist premier favored by the Red Shirts, from office in a 2006 coup. Two subsequent pro-Thaksin governments were disbanded by court rulings before Abhisit became prime minister.