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Bangkok descends from bustling metropolis to war zone

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Smoke billows from burning tires. Bangkok’s biggest streets, normally clogged by traffic, are guarded by troops behind razorwire, who fire on anti-government protesters, playing cat and mouse.

Anti-government 'red shirt' protestors set tires on fire to block army soldiers from advancing along Rama IV road in Bangkok May 15, 2010. Thai troops fired at protesters on Saturday in a third day of fighting on Bangkok's streets that has killed 17 people as soldiers struggle to isolate a sprawling encampment of demonstrators seeking to topple the government. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

A cacophony of ambulance sirens, gunshots and thunderous explosions echo down the now deserted streets lined with office towers, malls and hotels. Huge columns of smoke curl above the buildings from tires that protesters have set afire.

Welcome to Bangkok, a tourist hot spot known for its cultural attractions, racy nightclubs and -- now -- scenes of anarchy more reminiscent of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie.

Thousands of armed troops struggled to throw a security cordon around Bangkok’s commercial center on Saturday battling protesters armed with petrol bombs, rocks and, according to the government, possibly guns and grenades.

Hopes of a swift end to the violence were dashed when thousands of protesters massed, and called for more to follow, at a working class neighborhood near the business district, where a temporary stage was set up on a truck, suggesting plans for a new sit-in were taking shape.

Authorities put up banners in parts of the business district warning people they were entering a “live fire zone.” Troops and snipers fired on the protesters, some of whom carried no weapons, witnesses said.

“They shot everything that moved,” said a foreign photographer who fled the scene after being holed up inside a nearby house for six hours.

Medical rescue workers scurried into the streets to evacuate the wounded and the dead. One medical rescue worker was shot and feared dead. At least four journalists were among the 179 wounded since Thursday night in the mayhem that has killed 24.

The violence showed no sign of abating.

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“It’s pretty frightening what’s going on. I’m surprised the lengths both sides are willing to go,” said Frederick Dierckxsens, a Belgian businessman who lives in central Bangkok. “It’s gone on far too long and it’s getting worse.”

Thousands of red-shirted demonstrators, many of them women and children, rallied defiantly in their encampment fortified with walls of tires and bamboo poles topped with razor wires. They seemed unperturbed over the possibility troops could invade the bastion they have occupied the past six weeks.

“Let them come!,” said one red shirt named Piahist, brandishing a bamboo spear.

‘HAPPY YOU’RE LEAVING’

Power and cellphone signals were intermittent in parts of the city. Near-empty hotels once eager to lure wealthy guests were now trying to keep them away.

“I’m so happy you’re leaving,” the general manager of the Metropolitan Hotel told one guest checking out after troops and soldiers faced off the night before on the street outside.

“We’ve been e-mailing anyone who has booked rooms here telling them not to come,” he added.

The United States offered to evacuate families of U.S. government staff and urged citizens against travel to Bangkok.

In a televised address on Friday, Thailand’s government spokesman said the situation would soon return to normal, but residents were not as confident.

“My ears are ringing with all the shooting last night,” said Ratana Veerasawat, a grocery store owner north of the protest site. “It’s just awful and getting worse. Best to leave now.”

People forced to walk home at night in the urban war zone hear soldiers screaming and firing warning shots at protesters, punctuated by the occasional blast of grenades, which the military says some red shirts are firing from grenade launchers.

News images showed disturbing scenes of motionless bodies lying in pools of blood in front of the red shirt barricades surrounding their encampment in the commercial district.

Local television showed an angry mob beating a soldier left behind by his unit during chaotic fighting with no clear front lines. The young soldier was kicked and punched before bystanders intervened and bundled him into an ambulance.

One video captured a Canadian journalist lying on the ground pleading for help after being shot three times.

Others showed civilians scurrying for cover or hauling wounded demonstrators to safety as shrill gunshots rang out in the streets.

“I was getting kind of optimistic last week when they had the offer (a plan to end the protests) on the table, but now, I just don’t know,” said Ann Patrick, a British expatriate living in Bangkok’s new combat zone.

“It’s difficult to see how this will end.”

Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuka and Thin Lei Win; editing by Bill Tarrant

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