A rogue Thai general who helped anti-government protesters and was shot by an unidentified sniper died Monday from his wounds, raising fears of new violence after five days of street battles that have killed 37 people in downtown Bangkok.
A luxury hotel was the scene of a heated predawn gun battle Monday and later closed its doors, while soldiers patrolled well-known tourist enclaves and the government set another deadline for protesters to vacate their barricaded street camps.
The political conflict is Thailand's deadliest and most prolonged in decades, and each passing day of violence deepens divides in this nation of 65 million - a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. Thailand has long been considered a democratic oasis in Southeast Asia, and the unrest has shaken faith in its ability to restore and maintain stability.
Tensions were expected to rise further with the news that Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, a renegade army officer accused of creating a paramilitary force for the Red Shirt protesters, died Monday, the Vajira Hospital reported. His death came five days after he was shot in the head in downtown Bangkok while talking to journalists inside the perimeter of the protest zone.
The attack on Khattiya, more popularly known as Seh Daeng, triggered widespread street fighting between anti-government protesters and the army in central Bangkok.
The Thai government on Monday warned protesters barricaded within their "occupation zone" in the heart of the capital to leave by 3 p.m., saying anyone who remains there will be violating the law and will face two years in prison.
"Immediately vacate the area that is considered dangerous," the government said in a televised announcement. "Terrorists are trying to cause deaths in the area."
The announcement said buses will be provided to escort protesters out of their encampment and take them home.
The protesters paid tribute Monday to Khattiya and vowed to continue their demonstrations, which are demanding the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the dissolution of Parliament and new elections.
"Seh Daeng has accomplished his duty. All of us here have the duty to carry on the quest for justice," said a Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan. He said that the only hope now to end the violence was intervention by Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The 82-year-old monarch, hospitalized since September, has remained publicly silent on the crisis unlike decades past when he stepped in to stop bloodshed.
Another protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, said Red Shirt leaders were willing to submit themselves to the courts and "move toward peace and negotiations," but appeared to reiterate an earlier insistence that the government withdraw its troops before talks could begin.
The Red Shirts have been protesting since mid-March in Bangkok. Anti-government unrest spread Sunday to other areas of the capital. The Thai military has defended its use of force, and the government flatly rejected protesters' demands that the United Nations intercede to end the chaos.
Rapid gunfire and explosions echoed before dawn Monday outside the luxury Dusit Thani hotel, located next to the protest zone, where the military has attempted since Thursday to seal in thousands of demonstrators camping in the downtown streets. Guests were rushed to the basement for safety, and the management Monday morning asked all guests to check out by noon.
Reporters at the scene said the gunfire came both from government forces and protesters holed up inside the encampment who appear to have stockpiled a sizable arsenal of weapons.
Early Monday, several hundred army troops and heavily armed police were spotted in the Sukhumvit area, an upscale residential neighborhood popular with Bangkok expatriates. Roads were blocked to prevent traffic from traveling toward the protest zone, and many residents - unnerved by the uncommon sight of troops in Sukhumvit - were making plans to evacuate.
"People are either battening down the hatches and not moving out of the area, or they're getting out of town," said Debbie Oakes of Wellington, New Zealand, a four-year resident of Bangkok. She said she and her family were packing up to leave Bangkok and heading to the beach resort of Hua Hin, a three-hour drive away.
Authorities insisted they would continue the crackdown aimed at choking off the Red Shirts, who have occupied a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) protest zone - barricaded by tires and bamboo spikes - in one of Bangkok's ritziest areas for weeks.
Soldiers have encircled the core protest site and cut off utilities to the area. Protest leaders told women and children with them to move to a Buddhist temple compound within the zone.
The areas between the site and the military's perimeter have become a no-man's land where gunshots and blasts can regularly be heard. But some of the worst clashes Sunday were behind the military cordon - an indication the unrest was not contained within the protest area and was spreading.
According to government figures, 66 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in March. The toll includes 37 killed, most of them civilians, and 266 wounded since Thursday in fighting that has turned parts of central Bangkok into a battleground.
About 5,000 people are believed camped in the protest area, down from about 10,000 before fighting started Thursday. The violence ignited after the army started forming a cordon around the protesters' encampment and a sniper shot Khattiya, the renegade army officer who died Monday.
The Red Shirts, many who hail from the impoverished north and northeast, 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 their plight.
Days of prolonged fighting and disruption to normal city life have taken their toll on Bangkok residents. Most shops, hotels and businesses near the protest area are shut and long lines formed at supermarkets outside the protest zone as people rushed to stock up on food. The city's two mass transit trains remained closed Monday.
© 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.