Police fought back for the first time on Sunday against protesters trying to overthrow Thailand’s government, firing tear gas and rubber bullets in running battles against rock-throwing mobs who tried to force their way into the prime minister’s sand-bagged office complex.
The violence marks the sharpest escalation yet of the conflict between opponents and supporters of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and raises fears of prolonged instability in one of Asia’s biggest economies.
At least three people have been killed and 54 wounded in skirmishes so far, according to police and emergency services.
Most of the casualties occurred at a Bangkok stadium where gunshots rang out early on Sunday for the second day and the body of one protester shot in the chest lay face-up on the ground.
Ms Shinawatra spent the morning in meetings at a Bangkok police complex but cancelled an interview with reporters and evacuated to an undisclosed location because more than a hundred protesters “trying to come after her” attempted to break in, according to her secretary, Wim Rungwattanajinda.
Several demonstrators interviewed by The Associated Press, however, were unaware Ms Yingluck was inside.
Those who made it a few steps inside the vast compound stayed only a few minutes, and Ms Rungwattanajinda said they did not get anywhere near the heavily protected building where Ms Yingluck was located.
The unrest forced Bangkok’s biggest and glitziest shopping malls to close in the heart of the city.
Mobs also besieged at least three television stations demanding they broadcast the protesters’ views and not the government’s. One of those TV stations is government-run, the other is owned by the military and the third is independent.
The protesters, who mainly support the opposition Democrat Party, accuse Ms Yingluck of being a puppet of her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power.
They want to replace her elected government with an unelected “people’s council” but have been vague about what that means.
Some of Sunday’s most dramatic scenes played out in front of Government House, where more than 1,000 protesters skirmished with riot police who fired water cannons and tear gas over heavily-fortified barricades toward demonstrators.
At one point, a truck pulled up and tied a green rope to a concrete barrier and tried to drag it away. A few miles away, police drove back another crowd of protesters at the Bangkok police headquarters.
“We’re all brothers and sisters,” police shouted through a loudspeaker before firing tear gas. “Please don’t try to come in!”
The initial burst of tear gas dispersed the mob but they regrouped and heckled police from a distance.
The protests, the largest protests the country has seen since 2010, began this month and drew 100,000 people to a rally one week ago.