BANGKOK - A gunman opened fire at an opposition rally in Thailand Saturday in a deadly attack that inflamed tensions in the politically divided kingdom, where anti-government protesters wreaked fresh havoc in election preparations.
The shooting, which killed one demonstrator and wounded several others, follows weeks of mass street protests seeking to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and curb her billionaire family's political dominance.
Yingluck has called February elections in the hope of bringing an end to the rallies, which have drawn tens of thousands of people calling on her to step down.
But the protesters have vowed to block the February 2 vote, saying it will only return the Shinawatra clan to power.
Anti-government demonstrators besieged a number of candidate registration venues in Thailand's opposition-dominated south on Saturday, forcing officials to suspend the process in several provinces, Election Commission secretary-general Puchong Nutrawong told AFP.
Thailand has been periodically convulsed by political bloodshed since Yingluck's older brother Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago.
The protesters, a mix of southerners, middle class and urban elite, accuse the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician of corruption and say he controls his sister's government from his self-exile in Dubai.
They want an unelected "people's council" to run the country to oversee loosely-defined reforms - such as an end to alleged "vote buying" - before new elections are held in around a year to 18 months.
Yingluck's government still enjoys strong support in the northern half of the country and is expected to win the election if it goes ahead.
The pre-dawn shooting by at least one unidentified gunman targeted a group of demonstrators camped overnight near Government House, police said.
It was unclear who fired the shots but armed provocateurs have a history of trying to stir tensions in the politically polarised kingdom, with each side usually blaming the other.
The country's Election Commission on Thursday urged the government to postpone the February polls after protesters stormed a party registration venue in Bangkok, triggering clashes in which a policeman and a demonstrator were shot dead by unidentified gunmen.
But the government rejected the plea, saying that a delay would only bring more violence.
It has appealed to the military to provide security for election candidates and voters following several outbreaks of street violence in recent weeks in which eight people have been killed and about 400 wounded.
The army chief insisted Friday that the military would remain neutral and said it was up to the election authorities whether the vote could go ahead, but he did not rule out another coup.
"The door is neither closed nor open. In every situation, anything can happen," he said when asked about the possibility of a coup, without elaborating.
A first round of party-list registrations was completed on Friday with 53 parties registering to contest the polls, according to the Election Commission. A second round of registrations for constituency candidates began around the country on Saturday and is due to close on January 1.
Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters have accused the demonstrators of trying to incite the military to seize power again, in a country which has seen 18 successful or attempted coups since 1932.
It is the worst civil strife since 2010, when more than 90 people were killed in a bloody military crackdown on pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protests under the previous government.
The political conflict comes as the country quietly braces for the end of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej's more than six-decade reign, amid uncertainty over the eventual succession process that cannot be discussed openly in Thailand due to strict lese majeste laws.