Bangkok: The Thai government declared on Thursday it had mostly quelled 10 weeks of violent protests in the capital while buildings smouldered, troops rooted out small pockets of resistance and residents attempted a return to normal life.
But a night-time curfew was extended in Bangkok and 23 other provinces for three more days, and earlier troops and die-hard protesters exchanged sporadic fire in parts of the city.
Three more leaders of the so-called Red Shirts surrendered to authorities on Thursday, with one of them pleading for peace. Five protest leaders gave themselves up the day before and were flown to a military camp south of Bangkok for interrogation.
"I`d like to ask all sides to calm down and talk with each other in a peaceful manner. Please dissolve your anger. We cannot create democracy with anger," said Veera Musikapong after being taken into custody on Wednesday.
Army spokesman Col Sansern Kawekamnerd said the situation in the capital was mostly under control.
A major military operation the day before, in which at least seven people were killed and 88 wounded, was largely successful, but underlying political divisions that caused Thailand`s crisis may have been exacerbated, and unrest spread to provinces in the north and northeast.
Nation Television reported that one person had been killed and 14 wounded in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, one of several provinces where protests erupted on Wednesday.
Bangkok`s skyline overnight was blotted by flashes of fire and black smoke from more than three dozen buildings set ablaze — including Thailand`s stock exchange, main power company, banks, a movie theatre and one of Asia`s largest shopping malls.
The government described the mayhem as "an organised crime. It is terrorism." Sansern, who said 122 police and Army units were involved in the operation, said authorities found a cache of explosives and assault rifles during their sweep against the Red Shirts.
Troops in the central business district, occupied by protesters for weeks, exchanged occasional fire on Thursday morning with holdouts as locals in the area looted a vast tent city the activists had cobbled together.
A special police unit entered a Buddhist temple inside the former protest site where the government said 5,000 Red Shirt supporters, most of them women, old men and children, had sought shelter in recent days. A report said there was no resistance at the temple as police took away the group to a nearby police station.
Some cried and many were fearful that they would be incarcerated by the military. Others remained defiant.
"We won. We won. The Red Shirts will rise again," shouted one woman.
Since the Red Shirts began their protest in mid-March, at least 75 people — mostly civilians — have been killed and nearly 1,800 wounded. Of those, 46 people have died in clashes that started May 13 after the Army tried to blockade their 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) camp.
Six bodies were found at the temple, but it was unclear when those people died and whether they already were included in the official death toll as collected by the government`s Erawan Emergency Centre.
Elsewhere in the city, municipal workers removed debris and collected piles of garbage left in the streets that had been cordoned off by authorities for the past week. With military checkpoints removed in some areas, residents in protest areas were able to leave home to shop. Electricity was restored in some areas.
Sansern said there had been 39 arson attacks, which officials said included office buildings, banks, gold shops, a hotel, government offices and convenience stores.
He said that the arson and looting were "systematically planned and organised" by Red Shirt leaders before they surrendered.
He also said that the military had been restrained in their use of deadly force.
"If we had the intention to attack civilians, the death toll would have been much higher," he said.
Government spokesman Panithan Wattanayagorn said the rioting was sparked by "disappointment, hopelessness and anger" but the scale could not have been as widespread "if there had not been prior organised planning”.
While many of the rioters were believed to be members of the Red Shirts and their sympathisers, there also was an element of criminals and young hoodlums involved in the mayhem in the city of 10 million people. The violence in one of Southeast Asia`s most stable countries has damaged its economy and tourism industry.
With the top Red Shirt leaders in custody, it was unclear what the next move would be for the protesters who had demanded the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva`s government, the dissolution of Parliament and new elections. The protesters, many of them poor farmers or members of the urban underclass, say Abhisit came to power illegitimately and is oblivious to their plight.