Thousands of Thai protesters refused to leave Bangkok's streets on Sunday despite three days of fighting that has killed dozens and spiralled into chaotic urban warfare, with both sides calling for reinforcements.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he was considering a curfew for Bangkok, a city of 15 million people known for its nightlife, and vowed to stop the mostly rural and urban poor protesters from toppling his government.
But the protesters remained defiant, continuing to gather and demand the resignation of the British-born, Oxford-educated Mr. Abhisit, who is backed by Thailand's royalist elite, a group the demonstrators accuse of subverting democracy.
On Sunday morning, as hundreds gathered on usually congested Rama IV road, one demonstrator was shot in the head by a sniper, and rushed away to hospital, a witness said.
Mr. Abhisit said Saturday the country's army would continue its move against anti-government protesters in the centre of Bangkok, arguing that despite the "large number" of deaths, the operation was necessary to thwart those who wanted to plunge this country into civil war.
Mr. Abhisit addressed the nation as night fell in the Thai capital after a third consecutive day of deadly clashes. The fighting, the bulk of which took place around the outskirts of the five-square-kilometre "Red Shirt" encampment in the city centre, killed at least eight people Saturday, bringing the toll since Friday to 24 confirmed dead and nearly 200 injured.
Parts of the city descended into urban warfare, the soldiers using a mixture of rubber bullets and live rounds, the Red Shirts fighting back with stones, home-made rockets and the occasional M-79 grenade. Loud explosions echoed through the city centre into the night.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for both sides to refrain from violence and return to negotiations. Meanwhile, foreign embassies continued to evacuate their staff from the Thai capital.
The current situation is almost full civil war... I am not sure how this conflict will end. Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader
The army has yet to attempt a move against the main protest site, the area which was once the commercial heart of the city but which is currently shuttered and ringed by a medieval-looking wall of tires and sharpened bamboo poles. Several thousand people, most of them villagers from outside Bangkok, were camped inside as night fell Saturday. They're demanding the resignation of Mr. Abhisit and his government, which they view as illegitimate, and snap elections.
As the fighting raged on the streets, Mr. Abhisit said the government could no longer back down after allowing the protesters to occupy parts of Bangkok since March 12.
"It's crucial that we don't turn back and allow those who violate the law and establish armed militants to intimidate the government," he said, sounding decisive after weeks of being criticized by his supporters for not dealing firmly enough with the Red Shirt protest, which has cost Thailand's tourist-reliant economy hundreds of millions of dollars, and forced the closure of major malls and hotels in the heart of Bangkok.
In an effort to convince the Red Shirts to end their protest peacefully, Mr. Abhisit briefly offered to hold elections in November, a year before he is constitutionally required to. The Red Shirts rejected the offer as insufficient, and Mr. Abhisit said it is now off the table. He said the rejection of his peace plan showed some in the Red leadership wanted to drive Thailand into civil war.
"It's obvious that the denial of the plan aims to benefit (only) a small group of people that wants to create civil war and losses," he said during his televised address.
"The only way towards the least losses is to bring the rallies to an end. As long as there are still rallies, the terrorists are still there to attack state authorities and the protesters," he continued. "We cannot let them take Bangkokians hostage."
Military spokesperson Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the army had a plan to disperse the Red Shirts, and said reinforcements would be called into Bangkok to support troops struggling to bring the city under control.
The Red Shirt leadership, meanwhile, said it would not give in until Mr. Abhisit resigned and members of his government were brought to justice for their roles in the sporadic clashes between protesters and security forces that have now killed more than 51 people since April 10.
"The current situation is almost full civil war," said a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan. "I am not sure how this conflict will end."
Many inside the Red Shirt encampment echoed his defiance, saying they would stand their ground even as the army closed in on them. "I came here to fight for democracy," said Jorepond, a 52-year-old woman from the central Ang Thong province who was grilling fish at one of dozens of free kitchens set up around the protest site. "I am innocent. We will are ready to fight them with empty hands. I am ready to die."
With files from Reuters