BANGKOK: Grenade blasts and gunfire rocked an anti-government protest site in Thailand's capital Thursday, leaving two dead and 24 wounded as fears of wider political violence mounted in the crisis-hit kingdom.
The attack, which shattered weeks of relative calm on the streets of Bangkok, comes as opposition protesters push for the appointment of an unelected premier in a move that has infuriated government supporters.
The dismissal of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office last week in a controversial court ruling has sent tensions soaring in the Southeast Asian nation, which has endured years of political turmoil.
Her "Red Shirt" supporters have warned of the threat of civil war if power is handed to an unelected leader.
Unknown assailants fired two M79 grenades into a rally camp early Thursday at the city's Democracy Monument - a stone's throw from the city's famed backpacker zone - followed by a burst of gunshots, police said.
The first victim was a protester who was sleeping at Democracy Monument, while the second was a protest guard who died from gunshots," Police Major Wallop Prathummuang told AFP.
The city's Erawan Emergency Centre said two people were killed and 24 wounded in the attack, which took place at 3am (2000 GMT Wednesday). It said one person was in a critical condition.
There were no immediate reports of the identity of the gunmen, but both pro- and anti-government supporters are known to have armed hardliners and have blamed each other for previous bloodshed.
The deaths take the toll from six months of protests aimed at toppling the government to 27, with hundreds of others wounded in gun and grenade attacks mostly targeting opposition protesters.
Fears have intensified that the nation's political deadlock could spiral into street clashes between rival protesters following the ousting of Yingluck by the Constitutional Court for the unlawful transfer of a top security official.
Her Red Shirt supporters have been holding a rally in a Bangkok suburb and have vowed to defend the government, which has limped on despite her removal from office, along with nine cabinet members.
They want new elections slated for July 20 to find a path through the crisis, which has festered since last year.
The government was due to hold talks later Thursday with poll officials on preparations for the new vote. An election held in February was later annulled after demonstrators blocked voting in many areas.
Anti-government protesters refuse to join the ballot box contest and say the ruling Puea Thai party administration lacks the legitimacy to govern.
They are calling on the upper house of parliament, the Senate, to invoke a clause in the kingdom's constitution to remove the government and appoint a new premier.
But their critics say such a move has no legal basis.
Anti-government protesters have recently moved to the area immediately around Government House in the city's historic quarter - a short walk from the site of Thursday's attack.
They are protected by several layers of concrete barriers and sand bags, while scores of protest guards patrol the area.
Protest leaders now occupy a wing of the government headquarters, holding press conferences in an attempt to show the government lacks the authority to rule.
Thailand has been cleaved apart by political divisions since 2006 when Yingluck's older brother Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup.
Thaksin, a billionaire former telecoms tycoon, is reviled by the Bangkok elite and many southerners who accuse him of driving rampant corruption, cronyism and of being a threat to the revered monarchy.
But he has traditionally drawn strong support among the northern rural poor, who say he is the first Thai leader to improve their situation with populist policies and increasing political power.
Thaksin-led or aligned parties have won every election since 2001, but have also seen four premiers removed by coups or court rulings.