, BANGKOK, Apr 23 – Thai riot police faced down thousands of anti-government protesters on Friday after grenade attacks left one woman dead and scores wounded in the latest bloodshed of the escalating political crisis.
The violence in the heart of Bangkok late on Thursday further heightened tensions in the standoff between the government and Red Shirt protesters and triggered alarm in the international community which appealed for restraint.
On Friday, hundreds of riot police armed with batons and riot shields shouted through loud hailers across the protesters\’ barricade at a key intersection in Bangkok\’s business hub which has been paralysed by the turmoil.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said the grenades were fired from within the sprawling Red Shirt encampment, which has been fortified with sharpened bamboo stakes and piles of tyres.
But leaders of the protest movement denied they were responsible.
Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikuar told demonstrators to prepare for a crackdown by security forces, which have warned that time was running out after more than a month of anti-government rallies.
"The authorities are trying to push in," Nattawut told the crowd from a rally stage, where live pop music had been entertaining a dancing crowd since dawn despite Thursday\’s bloodshed.
The grenade blasts comes after a failed attempt by authorities on April 10 to disperse the Red Shirts sparked clashes that left 25 people dead and more than 800 injured in the worst political violence in almost two decades.
Suthep said an M79 grenade launcher was used in the attacks in a luxury shopping district in Bangkok, giving a toll Thursday of three dead.
But Thai emergency services said Friday that only one person was killed, a Thai woman, and 85 injured, including three foreigners from Australia, Indonesia and the United States.
The mostly working class Reds – who are campaigning for immediate elections and the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva – denied that they were responsible for the blasts.
"Whoever carried out the M79 attacks wants people to think it was done by the Reds. We will never attack innocent people," said a Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan.
Ambulances rushed away bloodied victims after the grenades exploded at a station in the elevated Skytrain, outside the exclusive Dusit Thani hotel and near a bank.
The blast scene was littered with pools of blood along with abandoned shoes and Thai flags, in an area dotted with dozens of corporate towers and a notorious red-light district.
Clashes later broke out between riot police and pro-government demonstrators who hurled bottles at the Reds, AFP reporters at the scene witnessed.
The United Nations appealed for restraint and several nations including the United States issued travel warnings for Thailand, which has been in turmoil since former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 coup.
"We appeal to both the protesters and the Thai authorities to avoid further violence and loss of life and to work to resolve the situation peacefully through dialogue," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.
Nesirky said UN chief Ban Ki-moon was "very concerned about the continuing standoff and tension in Thailand and the potential for this to escalate."
The army this week signalled it was preparing to crack down on the Red Shirts, who have shut down the capital\’s commercial heart as they campaign to overthrow a government they say is undemocratic and elitist.
"We don\’t want you to risk your lives. If there is a clash you could be hurt by stray bullets," said army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd. "Your time is running out. Please leave the area."
Despite repeated tense stand-offs with security forces, the rally has been largely cheerful with live bands performing to crowds waving signature heart-shaped clappers and selling red merchandise in support of the movement.
But the Reds, who have been demonstrating in Bangkok for weeks in their bid to topple Abhisit\’s government, have remained defiant and ruled out talks until the military withdraws.
The Red protesters are largely supporters Thaksin, who is now living in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.
They say Abhisit\’s government is illegitimate because it came to power in a parliamentary vote at the end of 2008 after a court ruling removed Thaksin\’s allies from office.