BANGKOK - Thailand's anti-corruption agency brings charges of negligence against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Thursday as anti-government protesters demand her ouster in a standoff marred by violence that shows no sign of coming to an end.
The charges relate to a disastrous rice subsidy scheme that paid farmers above the market price and has run out of funds, adding to the government's woes as farmers - normally the prime minister's biggest supporters - demand their money.
More than 300 government supporters gathered outside the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) in north Bangkok, where the charges were due to be brought, as riot police stood guard inside the three-storey complex.
Some of Yingluck's supporters threatened to seal off the grounds with cement in a symbolic show of resistance to the legal action against her.
The anti-government protesters elsewhere in the city, whose disruption of a general election this month has left Thailand in paralysis, want to topple Yingluck and erase the influence of her brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, seen by many as the real power in the country.
They want to set up a "people's council" of good and worthy people to spearhead political reforms, which they hope will stop parties loyal to the self-exiled Thaksin winning elections, before new polls are held.
The anti-government protesters have been on Bangkok's streets since November and have blocked main intersections for weeks to press their case.
Intermittent bursts of gunfire and grenade blasts have become routine at night in the political conflict that has taken a heavy toll on tourism in the capital, famous for its golden temples and racy bars.
Rock guitarist Eric Clapton has pulled out of a Bangkok concert scheduled for Sunday because of the deteriorating security.
Yingluck was a no-show at the anti-corruption agency hearing, sending her legal team instead.
Wittaya Arkompitak, deputy secretary of the anti-graft commission, told Reuters that officials had struck a deal with the pro-government demonstrators to allow officials access to the building through a back entrance.
"If her legal team hears the charges against her, she has 15 days to present evidence and after that the NACC will deliberate the case further," Wittaya told Reuters.
Yingluck has denied negligence and accused the agency of bias, noting that a rice corruption case involving the previous administration had made no progress after more than four years.
"Yingluck has not received fair treatment from the NACC,"Prompong Nopparit, a legal adviser to Yingluck's Puea Thai Party, told Reuters.
"The agency only gave 21 days to examine the case against her whereas a rice investigation involving the Democrat Party has dragged on for years. Standards should be the same for the Democrat Party and for Yingluck."
US CALLS FOR RESTRAINT
The protests have triggered violence in which 21 people have been killed and more than 700 wounded.
The United States and European Union called for restraint. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was ready to help find a solution.
"(He) strongly urges the parties to engage as soon as possible in meaningful and inclusive dialogue towards ending the crisis and advancing genuine reform," Ban's office said in a statement.
The crisis pits the mainly middle-class and southern anti-government demonstrators, who are backed by the royalist establishment, against the largely rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin in the north and northeast.
Both sides have armed activists and some pro-government leaders have called for Thailand to be divided in two, along north-south political lines, prompting talk of a civil war.
"As of now, there is no clear sign that (civil war) will happen," national security chief Paradorn Pattanatabutr told Reuters.
"There are those who think differently and respect the law who can no longer tolerate this ... The government must do everything it can to avoid confrontation and to prevent each side setting up stages or rallies near each other."
The standoff also raises the question of whether the military will step in, as it has many times before, most recently in 2006 to remove Thaksin, although the army chief has ruled out intervention this time.
Thaksin's enemies say the former telecoms tycoon is a corrupt crony capitalist who manipulates the masses with populist handouts and is a threat to the monarchy, charges he denies.
The army said on Wednesday it had stepped up its security presence in Bangkok after two nights of violence.
"We have increased security checkpoints and bases for our troops to 176 locations near protest sites and important state buildings ... to look after security for all sides including civilians, government officials and protesters," said Wara Bunyasit, commander of the 1st Division King's Guard.