Troops, military vehicles gather in Bangkok

Thailand faces 'huge challenges' after conflict: PM afp.com – VIDEO Plumes of smoke hung overhead and gunfire crackled on Thursday as Bangkok emerged from a curfew …

BANGKOK – Large numbers of Thai troops and armored vehicles marshaled Wednesday near the fortified encampment in downtown Bangkok occupied by thousands of anti-government protesters.

Sporadic gunfire was heard at daybreak after overnight rumors of a final push by the military to clear protesters from the site they have occupied for more than a month. Soldiers, using loudspeakers, told all people in the area to return to their homes and extended their blockades around the protest site.

Hundreds of soldiers and police, many armed with M-16 assault rifles, were seen in nearby streets and alleys.

At least 39 people have been killed and nearly 300 people wounded in seven days of clashes in the capital. The violence in a zone that includes some of Bangkok's toniest areas has destabilized a country once regarded as one of Southeast Asia's strongest democracies.

Thailand's government rejected so-called Red Shirt protesters' latest offer to negotiate Tuesday and insisted there would be no talks until the dwindling anti-government movement abandoned the ritzy areas of central Bangkok it has taken over.

The Red Shirts are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call early elections. They say the current administration came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it goes against results of a 2007 election to restore democracy after a military coup.

The protesters' two-month standoff deteriorated into street clashes last Thursday after a military adviser to the Red Shirts was shot by an apparent sniper, just after the army surrounded the protest zone in an attempt to cut off supplies of food and water.

Fiery battles have raged between soldiers firing live ammunition and hundreds of rioters with homemade weapons.

Protest leaders have argued over whether they should continue to resist a crackdown that has left 39 people dead over six days. The government estimated that 3,000 people remain in the downtown encampment, down from 5,000 on Sunday and 10,000 last week.

On Tuesday, the mood in the core protest zone was subdued Tuesday, with none of the dancing and festivities that previously lent the area a carnival-like atmosphere.

Periodically, protest leaders delivered fiery speeches, meant to keep the crowd motivated. But Tuesday's responses were not as full throated as before. Gone also were most food vendors, and mounds of rotting garbage piled up outside the camp's sharpened bamboo gates.

After nightfall Tuesday, explosions echoed across parts of central Bangkok near the protest zone and there were unconfirmed reports of a blast near the Japanese Embassy.

At least 39 people — mostly civilians — have been shot and killed and 313 wounded since the government's blockade began. According to government figures, 67 people have died and more than 1,700 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their Bangkok protest in March.

With no end to the protest in sight, authorities announced they would continue to be a ban on selling gasoline in several Bangkok districts because rioters were using it to make weapons. Police also outlawed the sale of tires in the capital without a police permit because rioters were using them to set fires.

Previous attempts to negotiate an end to the standoff have failed. A government offer earlier this month to hold November elections fell apart after protest leaders made more demands.

The violence in Bangkok, a popular stop for tourists heading to Thailand's world-famous beaches, has caused concern internationally.

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Associated Press writers Denis D. Gray, Chris Blake,Thanyarat Doksone, and Vijay Joshi contributed to this report. Additional research by Warangkana Tempati and Sinfah Tunsarawuth.

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