The deadly standoff between the Thai government and protesters reached a boiling point Wednesday as security forces surged into Lumpini Park, with at least five people dead in the largest offensive on protesters since demonstrations began.
Hours after the large military operation got underway, a government spokesman said soldiers had retaken control of the park area - and several Red Shirt leaders called off their protests.
The leaders could be seen on television telling a crowd at the park that they wanted to avoid further bloodshed and wanted to turn themselves in. But it seemed as though the large group of protesters were not heeding that call. Sniper fire and explosions could still be heard after the leaders said to end the protest, George McCleod, a witness and freelance journalist in the area, told CNN.
McCleod said he saw protesters set a bank, a police post and the stock exchange building ablaze.
"It is a live ammunition situation and I expect a heavy death toll by the end of the day," McCleod said.
The government instituted a curfew Wednesday, barring people from coming outside between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
At least five people, including an Italian journalist, were listed as killed by the Police Hospital in Bangkok. Another 64 - two journalists among them - were wounded.
Security forces would continue to surge into the park to root out the remaining protesters, a government spokesman said.
Seven anti-government protest leaders had been taken into custody while several others fled, authorities said. Officials asked protesters, residents and foreigners to head to a nearby stadium if they want to leave.
Still, about 1,000 protesters remained in the park.
"We Thai people never experienced this kind of situation before," said Sirinun Siripanich, the assistant secretary to the Bangkok governor. "This is like a mini-civil war."
The fear for some in the area was that there would soon be a violent showdown when security forces confronted the resolute protesters gathered there.
"I cannot see the operation coming to a successful end without further violence and without further losses," said Sukhumbhand Paribatra, Bangkok's governor. "I was hoping to have a more optimistic message but I cannot."
Army Col. Sansern Kaewkumnerd confirmed to CNN that soldiers were given the all-clear to fire if they faced a clear threat.
The military operation is the government's last stand against protests that have paralyzed parts of Bangkok for months, Thai officials said. At least 40 people have been killed since clashes intensified Thursday.