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Reuters Wednesday May 19, 12:13am EDT reporting from Bangkok Ambika Ahuja and Damir Sagolj:
Thai troops and armored vehicles broke through barricades of tires and bamboo on Wednesday in an operation to squeeze thousands of anti-government protesters from their fortified camp in central Bangkok, witnesses said.
Troops fired tear gas and automatic rifles at the red-shirted protesters, as an armored vehicle broke through a barricaded intersection but stopped before closing in on an area where an estimated 3,000 demonstrators were rallying.
Two bodies were found on Ratchadamri Road, which leads to the main protest site after troops followed the army vehicle into the encampment, a Reuters witness said. They appeared to have been shot.
The "red shirts" fired back, witnesses said, and at least eight people were wounded, a hospital said. Some troops were seen firing from an overpass as army officials blocked journalists from entering the area.
Protesters ignited walls of tires as the troops arrived, causing thick black smoke to billow high over skyscrapers and camouflaging thousands of demonstrators who have occupied the heart of Bangkok's commercial district for more than six weeks.
Troops earlier used bullhorns and loudspeakers to urge protesters and civilians to leave, as military helicopters circled overhead.
"Please leave the site immediately. Officials are about to conduct an operation," a soldier said over a loudspeaker.
more than six weeks.
It was unclear whether the military presence was the start of the crackdown or the beginning of a long process to raise pressure on the protesters and flush out women, children and others from a sprawling encampment where explosives, guns and grenades are thought to be stashed.
At least two dozen armored personnel carriers approached the encampment.
"We're asking everybody to be ready for a crackdown because armored personnel carriers are beginning to move in (to the area)," said Nattawut Saikua, a protest leader.
Some troops in the business district were as close as 200 meters (650 ft) from the protesters' three-meter (10-foot) high barricade made of tires, bamboo poles, and concrete topped with razor wire, a Reuters photographer said. Pick-up trucks and buses carrying soldiers also arrived in the area.
About 3,000 of the mostly rural and urban poor protestors, who broadly supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup, remain in the encampment in Bangkok's high-end shopping, hotel and diplomatic district.
"We have received reports that they will come in some areas. Negotiations are ongoing. But if they come, we will let it happen and fight on from here," Nattawut told supporters from a stage at the center of the main protest site.
Soon after he spoke, protest leaders broke into songs and, in a surreal sight, ran comedy skits from the stage.
They accuse the British-born, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of lacking a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 with tacit backing from the military, and have demanded immediate elections.
Troops have thrown a cordon around the 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) protest site, a "tent city" at the Rachaprasong intersection, paralyzing the heart of Bangkok. Hundreds of women and children have taken refuge in a temple inside the protest area.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban has said moving in on the encampment had to be "a last resort."
The red shirts have been stockpiling food, water, and supplies in their encampment since Thursday when troops began an operation to isolate them, sparking several days of street fighting that has killed 39 people and wounded nearly 300 in Thailand's deadliest political violence in 18 years.
(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; writing by Jason Szep; editing by Bill Tarrant)