BANGKOK (AP) — Police fought back for the first time Sunday against protesters trying to overthrow Thailand's government, firing tear gas and rubber bullets in running battles against rock-throwing mobs who tried to force their way into the prime minister's sand-bagged office complex.
The violence marks the sharpest escalation yet of the conflict between opponents and supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and raises fears of prolonged instability in one of Southeast Asia's biggest economies.
At least three people have been killed and 54 wounded in skirmishes so far, according to police and emergency services. Most of the casualties occurred at a Bangkok stadium where gunshots rang out early Sunday for the second day and the body of one protester shot in the chest lay face-up on the ground.
Yingluck spent the morning in meetings at a Bangkok police complex, but canceled an interview with reporters and evacuated to an undisclosed location because more than a hundred protesters "trying to come after her" attempted to break in, according to her secretary, Wim Rungwattanajinda.
Several demonstrators interviewed by The Associated Press, however, were unaware Yingluck was inside. Those who made it a few steps inside vast compound stayed only a few minutes, and Wim said they did not get anywhere near the heavily protected building where Yingluck was located.
The unrest forced Bangkok's biggest and glitziest shopping malls to close in the heart of the city. Mobs also besieged at least three television stations demanding they broadcast the protesters' views and not the government's. One of those TV stations is government run, the other is owned by the military and the third is independent.
The protesters, who mainly support the opposition Democrat Party, accuse Yingluck of being a puppet of her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. They want to replace her elected government with an unelected "people's council" but have been vague about what that means.
Political instability has plagued Thailand since Thaksin's ouster. In 2008, anti-Thaksin demonstrators occupied Bangkok's two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister's office for three months, and two years later pro-Thaksin protesters occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames and more than 90 dead.
Any further deterioration is likely to scare away investors as well as tourists who come to Thailand by the millions and contribute 10 percent to the $602 billion economy, Southeast Asia's second largest after Indonesia. It is also likely to undermine Thailand's democracy, which had built up in fits and starts interrupted by coups.
Some of Sunday's most dramatic scenes played out in front of Government House, where more than 1,000 protesters skirmished with riot police who fired water cannons and tear gas over heavily fortified barricades toward demonstrators. At one point, a truck pulled up and tied a green rope to a concrete barrier and tried to drag it away. A few kilometers (miles) away, police drove back another crowd of protesters at the Bangkok police headquarters.
"We're all brothers and sisters," police shouted through a loudspeaker before firing tear gas. "Please don't try to come in!"
The initial burst of tear gas dispersed the mob but they regrouped and heckled police from a distance. One Associated Press cameraman filming the mayhem was hit the hand by a rock and the leg by a rubber bullet.
The protests, the largest protests the country has seen since 2010, began this month and drew 100,000 people to a rally one week ago.
Until this weekend, they have largely been peaceful. But tensions rose Saturday night after pro- and anti-government groups clashed in a northeastern Bangkok neighborhood and unidentified gunmen shot and killed two people. At least 45 people were injured.
Gunshots were fired in the same area early Sunday, but it was not clear who was responsible or targeted, said police Col. Narongrit Promsawat. The violence occurred near a stadium holding a large pro-government rally.
At least some of Sunday's gunshots appeared to have been fired into the nearby Ramkhamhaeng University, according to its rector, Wutthisak Larpcharoensap.
Police called for calm in a televised statement, saying they were helping to escort both sides out of the area safely. Organizers of the pro-government "Red Shirt" rally at the stadium called off the event for safety reasons and sent people home Sunday, after many spent the night camped inside.
During the past week, the protesters had seized the Finance Ministry, turned off power at police headquarters, camped at a sprawling government office complex and briefly broken into the army headquarters compound to urge the military to support them.
Police and authorities have exercised extreme restraint over the past week. But on Sunday, they appeared to have drawn a red line at Government House, and began fighting back for the first time.
Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who said earlier the army would not take sides, on Sunday urged the police not to use force and called on protesters to avert violence, according to Lt. Col. Winthai Suvaree, an army spokesman.
Most of the protesters are middle-class Bangkok residents who have been part of the anti-Thaksin movement for several years and people brought in from the Democrat Party strongholds in the southern provinces.
Thailand's latest protests started after an ill-advised bid by Yingluck's ruling Pheu Thai party to push an amnesty law through Parliament that would have allowed Thaksin's return from exile. The bill failed to pass after the upper house of parliament voted against it.
Because Yingluck's party has overwhelming electoral support from the country's rural majority, which benefited from Thaksin's populist programs, the protesters want to change the country's political system to a less democratic one where the educated and well-connected would have a greater say than directly elected lawmakers.
Thaksin lives in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck, Jocelyn Gecker, Papitchaya Boonngok, Yves Dam Van, and Raul Gallego Abellan contributed to this report.