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Thailand in turmoil after 21 die in bloody clashes

Defiant "Red Shirt" Thai protesters vowed on Sunday to keep up their bid to topple the government, after the country's worst political violence in almost two decades left 21 dead and over 800 injured.

world Updated: Apr 11, 2010 19:42 IST

Defiant "Red Shirt" Thai protesters vowed on Sunday to keep up their bid to topple the government, after the country's worst political violence in almost two decades left 21 dead and over 800 injured.

Protest leaders, who have promised to maintain their campaign until the government dissolves parliament and calls fresh elections, demanded Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva step down and leave the country.

Seventeen civilians, including a Japanese TV cameraman, and four soldiers were killed in Saturday's crackdown on the red-shirted supporters of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok, the emergency services told AFP.

Today evening Reds gathered to mourn the loss of their comrades at the city's Democracy Monument -- the scene of a fierce battle on Saturday -- where grieving relatives led a procession holding up gold-framed pictures of the dead.

They were followed by crying men carrying caskets, a couple containing bodies draped with Thai flags and flowers. Some onlooking protesters prayed and others waved red banners.

It was the latest chapter in years of turmoil pitting the ruling elite against the mainly poor and rural Reds, who say the government is illegitimate as it came to power in 2008 after a court ousted Thaksin's allies from power.

The violence erupted when troops tried to clear one of two sites in the centre of the capital occupied by the protesters for the past month. Soldiers fired in the air and used tear gas while the Reds responded by hurling rocks.

As the clashes intensified gunshots echoed around the city and both sides accused the other of using live ammunition. Emergency services said two protesters were killed by gunshot wounds to the head.

The government denied troops had opened fire on protesters with live rounds.

"Weapons were used only in self defence and to fire into the air. We don't find any evidence that soldiers used weapons against people," government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told a press conference.

More than 200 soldiers were injured, 90 of them seriously, he said. One of the dead was a colonel.

At one stage protesters overwhelmed and captured an armoured personnel carrier, while army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said government weapons had fallen into the hands of the demonstrators.

The army later retreated, calling for a truce with the demonstrators, who were holding five soldiers hostage. Thousands of protesters remained on the streets at the two main protest sites today.

"Abhisit must leave Thailand," Reds leader Veera Musikapong told supporters.