Thai soldiers sprayed automatic weapons fire into the air and threw tear gas to clear protesters blocking roads in the capital in the pre-dawn darkness today.
Demonstrators responded by hurling at least one petrol bomb and 70 people were reported injured, most by tear gas.
Police said anti-government protesters were stationed at at least half a dozen points in Bangkok, including the prime minister’s office.
Demonstrators used commandeered public buses to block several key intersections and they set tires on fire.
Today’s clash marked a major escalation in the ongoing protests that have roiled this southeast Asian nation. The skirmish came a day after the country’s ousted prime minister called for a revolution.
While the government has declared a state of emergency, protesters controlled many streets in the capital Bangkok.
They had earlier commandeered public buses and forced military vehicles to halt, in one case climbing on top of two armoured personnel carriers, waving flags and shouting “Democracy”.
A mob of the red-shirted protesters smashed cars carrying Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his aides yesterday.
The secretary-general of Mr Abhisit’s office, Niphon Promphan, was dragged from the car and beaten, suffering head injuries and broken ribs.
The red-shirted demonstrators are supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who want new elections, saying Mr Abhisit’s four-month-old government took power illegitimately.
They also accuse the country’s elite – the military, judiciary and other unelected officials – of undermining democracy by interfering in politics.
Parliament appointed Mr Abhisit in December after a court ordered the removal of the previous pro-Thaksin government citing fraud in the 2007 elections.
Mr Thaksin’s supporters took to the streets in protest, and their numbers grew to 100,000 in Bangkok last week.
Today’s clash began between 4am and 5am, as troops in full combat gear advanced to disperse the protesters, who were occupying a major junction, according to witnesses.
The soldiers fired hundreds of rounds from their M-16 automatic rifles, with reporters saying most appeared to have been aimed over the heads of the protesters.
The reporters saw protesters throw at least one petrol bomb which exploded behind the army line and tear gas floated across the eerie dawn scene.
At the nearby Century Park Hotel, foreign tourists were seen rushing into taxis and heading for Bangkok’s international airport.
Dr Chatri Charoenchivakul of the Erawan Emergency Coordination Centre said at least 70 people were injured, most of them from tear gas, while two soldiers and two civilians suffered from gunshot wounds.
Army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the protesters also used tear gas as well as “weapons” to open fire on the soldiers.
In another incident, the official Thai News Agency said three grenades, believed to be fired from an M-79 grenade launcher, landed inside the compound of the Constitutional Court. One exploded, causing minor damage, and the other two failed to explode, the report said.
Today marked the beginning of the Thai New Year, normally the country’s most joyous holiday.
The Bangkok municipal government cancelled all its festivities, but despite the rioting many Thais and foreign tourists began engaging in the ritualistic water throwing and general partying.