Thailand's embattled prime minister declared a state of emergency in the capital Tuesday after thousands of his opponents and supporters clashed in the worst street violence here in more than a decade.
One person was killed and dozens were injured, some of them from gunshot wounds, as a week of mass protests calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej spilled over into blooshed overnight.
Samak had previously said he would not use force to push out the thousands of protesters who have occupied the main government complex since last week, but after the violence said it was now time for them to go.
"They must be moved from the Government House," Samak told a nationally televised news conference. "I had no other choice but to declare a state of emergency in Bangkok in order to solve the problem for once and for all."
Samak gave the army the power to break up any gathering of more than five people and to force people to leave any location, setting the stage for a showdown at Government House, a site that includes Samak's offices.
But a leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a well-organised movement that has been pushing for the premier to stand down after just seven months in office, urged his supporters to stay put.
"You don't have to be afraid of the state of emergency," media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul told thousands of people assembled at the protest camp.
Thai police called in army reinforcements early Tuesday to rein in the protests, setting nerves on edge in a country that has seen 18 military coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Thai television showed pro- and anti-government protesters wearing helmets and carrying batons running though the streets, fighting with each other and throwing rocks, as people lay bleeding on the street.
One person died and 44 were injured in the clashes, a spokesman for the national emergency centre said.
PAD supporters stormed Samak's Government House complex one week ago, and thousands are still squatting on the grounds.
The activists accuse Samak of acting on behalf of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in exile in Britain after the same protest group helped provoked a military coup that toppled his government in 2006.
No one was killed during that coup, making this the deadliest political violence since the Bloody May massacre in 1992 when dozens of pro-democracy activists were killed on the same streets as today's protests.
The protests which began a week ago expanded nationwide over the weekend to force the temporary closure of three regional airports and halt railway services.
They further scaled up Monday when Thailand's biggest union called for a strike to add to the pressure on Samak, threatening to disrupt Bangkok's water and power supplies from Wednesday.
PAD gathers most of its support from Bangkok's traditional elite and a portion of the middle class. Its leaders openly disparage the merit of votes cast by the nation's rural poor, who have thrown their support behind Thaksin and now Samak.
Thaksin's allies still fill many top seats in government, and Samak won elections in December by campaigning as Thaksin's proxy.
In addition to demanding that Samak resign, PAD wants an overhaul of Thailand's system of government, saying only 30 percent of seats in parliament should be elected, with the rest appointed.