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Thai protesters leave Temple sanctuary

People clutching belongings and children filed out of the pagoda, leaving behind the bodies of six of the victims, laid out in the shade under a portrait of Thailand’s revered king.

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Authorities promised to swiftly investigate the deaths at the temple, which had been declared a “safe zone” during a deadly army campaign to close down the “Red Shirts” protest camp, a crackdown that left at least seven others dead.

The surrender of the movement’s leaders in the face of the overwhelming military assault unleashed chaos on the streets, and police said some 5,000 demonstrators including many women and youngsters streamed into the pagoda.

“They were evacuated to police headquarters this morning and are waiting to return home,” said Police Operation Centre spokesman Major General Prawut Thavornsiri.

Crowds panicking

He said that as well as the dead, five injured people including an unnamed British journalist had been taken to hospital by medical workers.

Earlier soldiers took up positions along elevated train tracks overlooking the temple, firing warning shots that sparked panic among the crowd and sent people rushing back inside.

Police said the gunbattle raged at the temple early on Wednesday evening, several hours after the protest leaders surrendered and told supporters to disperse, as security forces struggled to control hardline holdouts.

An AFP reporter who was at the temple until shortly before the shooting broke out said panicked protesters took cover there after fleeing from the main rally stage where they had been gathered.

‘Weapons-free zone’

The temple had been designated a weapons-free safe zone but militant black-clad protesters darted in and out of the building as security forces attempted to hunt them down.

People inside, including many women and children, were panicking and crying in the emotional and violent aftermath of the protests, as explosions and gunshots continued to be heard outside.

The government had laid on buses at a stadium to take them home, but the chaos in the streets, where buildings were burning and armed men were roaming, meant many were unable to reach the area.

At the temple on Thursday, saffron-clad monks milled around with the thousands gathered there, who were tense and saddened at the grisly scene before them.

Banners torn down

Some still wore red armbands to indicate their allegiance to the “Red Shirts” anti-government movement that occupied Bangkok’s top shopping district for six weeks.

Mats placed over the bodies of the victims were briefly removed to reveal bullet wounds, mostly to the abdomen.

The army said its commander, General Anupong Paojinda, had ordered an immediate investigation into the deaths at the temple, where thousands of people, including many women and children, had sought shelter.

“At this moment it’s still unclear what was the cause of the shooting,” said army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, but he said it was believed that gunmen had launched an “ambush”.

At the nearby stage where “Red Shirts” leaders had for six weeks delivered fiery speeches to rally their supporters, the area was deserted and a large banner saying “peaceful protesters, no terrorists” was partly torn down.