BANGKOK (AFP) - A six-year-old girl on Monday became the third child to die in recent days in Thailand's political unrest, as the army chief warned the country could collapse if violence continues.
The girl died from wounds after a grenade attack on Sunday afternoon on a busy Bangkok shopping district, near a rally by demonstrators trying to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Her four-year-old brother and a women also died in the blast, which left blood splattered on a main road lined by street stalls, several top-end hotels and a major shopping mall.
Police said the grenade was fired into the crowd by unknown attackers from an M79 shoulder-held launcher.
They said an officer also died on Monday, nearly a week after being shot in the head in a gunbattle with protesters.
Six people - including two officers - were killed in that incident in Bangkok's historic heart, a stone's throw from the city's backpacker zone.
Twenty-one people have now been killed and more than 700 wounded in violence linked to almost four months of anti-government demonstrations.
Attacks have mainly been mounted in Bangkok, although a drive-by shooting late Saturday on a protest rally in the eastern province of Trat killed a five-year-old girl.
The current unrest is the worst in the bitterly divided kingdom since protests by "Red Shirts" - allied to Yingluck's older brother Thaksin - against a previous government in 2010 sparked clashes and a military crackdown that left more than 90 people dead.
"As days go by, there will be more violence until it cannot be controlled," army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha warned in a rare televised live speech.
"If losses continue, the country will collapse for sure and nobody will win or lose," he said.
Prayut urged reconciliation and talks. He said troops are "ready to do their duty" but "do not want to use force and weapons to unnecessarily fight with the Thai people".
He did not elaborate.
The army has staged numerous coups - with the most recent one ousting Thaksin from office in 2006 - and the army chief's comments are closely scrutinised for signs of possible intervention.
Violence 'hard to control'
The head of the government's security response to the protests also predicted more unrest.
"From now on violence will keep happening, for sure, so anyone who is not involved in the protests should not go to them," said Labour Minister Chalerm Yubamrung. "I accept that it is hard to control."
The government says it has been hamstrung by a court ruling last week banning it from using force to disperse peaceful protesters.
Authorities say high-calibre weapons fired at them last week indicate the protesters have heavily armed support, while television footage has shown apparent protesters firing handguns in clashes.
The shocking death of the three children earned swift condemnation from UN chief Ban Ki-Moon. Prime Minister Yingluck labelled them "terrorist acts".
The UN children's fund UNICEF called on protesters to keep children away from the rallies, which have for many weeks been treated as boisterous family occasions.
Yingluck spent Monday inspecting local produce in a province 150 kilometres (90 miles) east of Bangkok, in a move seized on by her opponents as a sign she is on the run.
But a government spokeswoman told AFP she would return to Bangkok by the evening.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who as deputy premier at the time oversaw the 2010 crackdown on the Red Shirts, said the government bore responsibility for the weekend violence.
"We use peaceful tactics, we are empty-handed. In past four months, we have never created any violence," he told a rally.
Hatred for Thaksin, who lives in exile to avoid prison over graft charges, is at the heart of the anti-government movement. Protesters allege he still runs the government through Yingluck and has fostered widespread corruption.
But Thaksin and his sister enjoy strong support in the rural north and northeast.