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Published: Sunday February 23, 2014 MYT 7:44:00 PM
Updated: Sunday February 23, 2014 MYT 7:47:39 PM

16 injured in Bangkok blast as fears mount over political violence

BANGKOK (AFP) - At least sixteen people were injured in a blast in a popular Bangkok shopping district Sunday, health officials said, further amplifying tensions a day after gunmen opened fire on an anti-government rally in eastern Thailand, killing a five-year-old girl.

Blood was splattered on the pavement as soldiers and police sealed off the area - opposite one of Bangkok's biggest shopping malls and near several high-end hotels in the capital's commercial heart - according to an AFP photographer at the scene,

"Sixteen people have been reported injured," the city's Erawan emergency centre said, without giving further details of the extent of the injuries.

Police could not immediately confirm the cause of the blast, which took place late afternoon during an anti-government rally.

Months of rallies aimed at toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been marred by sporadic gun and grenade attacks - mainly in Bangkok - by unknown assailants. Seventeen people have died so far, both protesters and policemen.

The violence has fuelled fears of more widespread unrest in the kingdom, which has been in the grip of a bitter political rift since a military coup ousted Yingluck's older brother Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister in 2006.

Late Saturday gunmen in two pick-up trucks opened fire at an opposition rally in a packed marketplace in Khao Saming district of Trat province, 300 kilometres (185 miles) east of the capital, in an attack police believe to be politically motivated.

"A five-year old girl was shot and died later while 35 other people were injured," said local police lieutenant Thanaphum Naewani.

A health official said another five-year-old girl was among six people in critical condition after the shooting, Supan Srithamma.

Hours after the attack leaders of the pro-government "Red Shirt" movement met in Nakhon Ratchasima, the gateway to the Shinawatra-allied northeast, to discuss ways to bolster Yingluck's crisis-hit administration.

 'Organised terror'

The anti-government movement condemned Saturday's attack, blaming authorities for failing to protect rally-goers.

"Weapons of war were used in an act of planned and organised terror," protest spokesman Akanat Promphan told AFP.

"This atrocity has worsened the severity of the violence against innocent protesters... it is a matter of national security," he told AFP, urging authorities to swiftly track down the attackers.

Both sides have traded blame for sparking previous clashes, including a gunbattle between police and protesters in Bangkok's historic heart last week which left five people dead - including a policeman - and dozens wounded.

Protesters are carrying out a self-styled "shutdown" of several key intersections across Bangkok, although in dwindling numbers.

Yingluck's besieged government last week suffered another blow when a court banned it from using force against peaceful demonstrators, severely cramping its powers to handle the protests and mounting violence.

In addition to the street protests, the embattled premier is also under intense pressure from a series of other legal challenges.

She faces charges of neglect of duty over a controversial rice subsidy scheme that could see her removed from office.

Protesters accuse Yingluck's billionaire family of using taxpayers' money to buy the loyalty of rural voters through populist policies such as the rice scheme.

They are demanding she steps down to make way for a temporary unelected council that would oversee loosely defined reforms to tackle corruption and alleged vote-buying.

Thailand has been riven by deep divisions since Thaksin's ousting.

The current unrest is the worst since mass Red Shirts protests against a Democrat-led government in 2010 sparked clashes and a bloody military crackdown that left more than 90 people dead.

Some analysts say the seemingly intractable crisis could lead to protracted violence or a form of wider civil conflict.

Tags / Keywords: thailand, bangkok, anti-government protests, blast, political violence

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