BANGKOK - Thailand risks sliding into civil war after a wave of political violence that has claimed 21 lives including several children, top security and army officials warned Tuesday.
Near-daily gun and grenade attacks in protest-hit Bangkok have raised concerns that a nearly four-month-old political crisis is entering a dangerous new phase with both sides refusing to back down.
More than 700 people have been wounded since demonstrators took to the streets for rolling rallies aimed at ousting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and ending the political dominance of her billionaire family.
The head of Thailand's equivalent of the FBI warned Tuesday that the situation may "escalate into civil war".
Department of Special Investigation chief Tarit Pengdith urged "restraint and patience" on both sides of the political divide, during a televised address by officials handling the security response to the crisis.
His comments echoed a similar warning from the head of the coup-prone army.
"Absolutely, there will be civil war if all sides do not respect rules," General Prayut Chan-O-Cha wrote in an SMS to AFP.
"The military will do everything for the country and the people... not for a particular side," he added.
Protest and government leaders bear "responsibility for the losses", Prayut wrote, a day after warning in a rare televised speech that the country risks "collapse" unless it pulls back from the brink.
Government supporters have accused opposition demonstrators of trying to incite the military to seize power, in a country which has seen 18 successful or attempted coups since 1932, but so far the army has remained largely above the fray.
Thailand has been bitterly divided since a bloodless coup by the military in 2006 ousted Yingluck's elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, as prime minister, unleashing years of political instability.
The latest unrest is the deadliest since more than 90 people died during protests by pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" in 2010 that sparked street clashes and a bloody military crackdown.
Concerns are mounting that the Red Shirts could return to the streets of Bangkok to defend the government, bringing the risk of clashes between rival protesters.
Gunfire rang out early Tuesday near a rally camp in a Bangkok park occupied by demonstrators.
Two people were slightly wounded, officials said. A rally spokesman said that gunmen had attacked the camp but it was not possible to verify his account.
Reds to mobilise
The Red Shirts, mainly drawn from the rural north and northeastern provinces, have held back from demonstrations in the capital since November when several people died after clashes broke out near one of their rallies at a stadium in Bangkok.
They have stepped up their rhetoric in recent days as Yingluck comes under growing pressure.
"We must be ready to come to Bangkok within 24 hours for one purpose... to protect democracy," senior Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikuar said at a press conference Tuesday.
The Reds will stage rallies over the coming weekends in the northeast as a show of strength, he added.
Yingluck has been summoned by an anti-corruption panel to hear neglect of duty charges on Thursday that could lead to her removal from office, although it is unclear if she will personally attend the hearing.
The opposition says the Shinawatra family and its allies, who have won every election for more than a decade, have fostered widespread corruption and used taxpayers' money to buy the loyalty of rural voters.
The demonstrators accuse Thaksin of running the country by proxy while living in self-exile to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.
Protest leaders want to install an unelected "people's council" to reform the country before new elections are held in around a year to 18 months.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for a series of violent incidents, sometimes involving shadowy gunmen armed with semi-automatic weapons. The authorities and the protesters blame each other for the attacks.
A four-year-old boy and his sister, 6, were killed Sunday by a grenade at a protest site in an upscale Bangkok shopping district, a day after a five-year-old girl was shot dead at a rally in eastern Thailand.