Thailand's prime minister defended on Saturday the deadly army crackdown on the Red Shirt protesters besieging the capital, saying there was no turning back as clashes raged in the center of Bangkok.
"The government must move forward. We cannot retreat because we are doing things that will benefit the entire country," Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a national broadcast, striking a defiant tone that made it clear he was in no mood for a compromise. The spiraling violence has raised concerns that Thailand - a longtime tourism magnet that promotes its easygoing culture as the "Land of Smiles" - was teetering toward instability. The political uncertainty has spooked foreign investors and damaged the vital tourism industry, which accounts for 6 per cent of the economy, Southeast Asia's second largest.
The demonstrators on Saturday accused government snipers of picking people off with head shots.
The army says it is not shooting to kill, but protesters crawled along sidewalks to slowly drag away bodies of three people near the city's Victory Monument traffic circle in the Ratchaprarop area Saturday. They accused army snipers of shooting all three in the head.
"The situation right now is getting closer to civil war every minute," a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said. "We have to fight on. The leaders shouldn't even think about retreat when our brothers are ready to fight on."
The televised comments were Abhisit's first comments since the latest violence began Thursday after a Red Shirt protest leader was shot and seriously wounded by a sniper's bullet.
Since then explosions and street fighting have killed 22 people and wounded more than 170 as troops tried to seal off the 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) zone where some 10,000 Red Shirt protesters, mostly rural poor, have occupied one of the capital's most upscale areas since March 12.
They have set up a perimeter of fuel-soaked tires and bamboo stakes, refusing to leave until Abhisit dissolves Parliament and calls new elections.
The Red Shirts claim his coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it is indifferent to the poor. Abhisit said the government was acting in the interests of the public and the plan is "to return normalcy with minimum loss" to Bangkok.
"We cannot deny that while these protests are taking place, terrorism also is taking place involving the use of war weapons," he said. "I insist that if we want to see an end to the loss of life, the only way is to have the protesters end their protest." He said the government offered a reconciliation plan that was rejected by the Red Shirts.
The crisis had appeared to be reaching a resolution last week when Abhisit offered to hold elections in November, a year early. But hopes were dashed after Red Shirt leaders made more demands. "We cannot let ... a group of people set up a militia to topple the government. This is the only way to achieve peace," Abhisit said.
Abhisit's comments came as fighting spread on Saturday to several streets leading to the encampment, and the army set up barricades in an attempt to seal off the area, where all shops, hotels and businesses were closed.
Troops have used tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds on demonstrators after they set fire to tires and a police bus on Friday. The government accuses them of using guns, grenades and firebombs.
On Saturday, soldiers unrolled razor wire across roads leading to the Ratchaprarop area - a commercial district north of the main protest site - and pinned Thai and English-language notices saying "Live Firing Zone" and "Restricted Area. No Entry." Ratchaprarop houses high-rise buildings, posh hotels and designer shops. It was the scene of some of the worst fighting Friday night between troops and anti-government protesters.
In several rounds of violence, a total 51 people have been killed and at least 1,620 wounded, according to a government toll that includes the most recent clashes.