BANGKOK - A Thai policeman was shot dead as security forces clashed with opposition protesters during an operation to reclaim besieged government buildings in Bangkok Tuesday, resulting in dozens of injuries and arrests.
The sound of gunfire and explosions shook an area of the city's historic district just a short walk away from major tourist attractions, after riot police armed with batons, shields and helmets moved to clear rally sites.
"One policeman was shot dead and four injured," Police Lieutenant General Prawut Thavornsiri told AFP, adding that one of the casualties was seriously injured by shrapnel from a blast.
A total of 44 people were hurt, according to the city's Erawan emergency medical centre.
Demonstrators rejected a police demand to leave the area around Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's offices within one hour, a day after they poured buckets of cement onto a sandbag wall in front of a gate to the compound.
"The government cannot work here anymore," said a spokesman for the anti-government movement, Akanat Promphan.
"The arrests don't affect us. The will of the people is still strong. The government is trapped. It has no way forward."
About 100 opposition demonstrators were arrested at a different rally site at an energy ministry complex in the capital on charges of violating a state of emergency, National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabut told AFP.
It was the first time that so many protesters have been detained since mass rallies seeking to overthrow Yingluck and her administration began more than three months ago.
The protesters are demanding Yingluck resign and hand power to a temporary, unelected government that would carry out reforms to tackle corruption and alleged misuse of public funds before new elections are held.
Years of rival protests
Thailand has been periodically rocked by mass demonstrations staged by rival protest groups since a controversial military coup in 2006 that ousted then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra - Yingluck's brother.
Twelve people have died and hundreds of others have been injured in political violence linked to the latest round of rallies, which have been targeted by a series of grenade attacks and drive-by shootings by unidentified perpetrators.
Demonstrators have blocked major intersections in a self-styled "shutdown" of the capital, although attendance has dropped sharply compared with December and January when at the peak tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of people took to the streets.
So far the authorities have not announced any plan to clear those road junctions in the retail and commercial centre.
Yingluck's government held a general election on February 2 in an attempt to defuse tensions, but the opposition boycotted the vote, saying it would not end the kingdom's long-running political crisis.
Demonstrators prevented 10,000 polling stations from opening in the election, affecting several million people.
Yingluck's opponents say she is a puppet for her brother Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-politician who fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.
Pro-Thaksin parties have triumphed at the ballot box for more than a decade, helped by strong support in the northern half of the kingdom.
But many southerners and Bangkok residents accuse Thaksin and his sister of using taxpayers' money to buy the support of rural voters through populist policies such as a controversial rice farm subsidy scheme.
Thaksin is also hated by many in the kingdom's royalist establishment who see him as a threat to the monarchy, at a time of anxiety over the health of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Some observers say that behind the street protests, a clash is unfolding over who will be running the country when the revered but ailing monarch's more than six-decade reign comes to an end.
The deployment of security forces has revived memories of a military crackdown on mass pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" rallies in 2010 under the previous government that left dozens dead.