Gunfire rang out at a major intersection in Thailand's capital yesterday as clashes between protesters and government supporters erupted on the eve of tense nationwide elections.
At least seven people were wounded, including an American photojournalist.
The confrontation began after a group of pro-government supporters marched to a district office in northern Bangkok containing ballot boxes that had been surrounded by protesters who have been trying to derail the vote.
The two sides first clashed with rocks and firecrackers, then with pistols and assault rifles. One group of men carrying sticks smashed the windscreens of a car carrying protesters that sped away. People caught up in the mayhem took refuge inside a nearby shopping mall and hid along a pedestrian bridge while others crouched behind vehicles.
According to the city's emergency services, at least six Thais were wounded, including a reporter for the local Daily News newspaper. American photojournalist James Nachtwey was shot in the leg.
The violence came one day ahead of a highly unusual ballot that has little to do with the traditional contests between rival candidates vying for office. Instead, the vote is shaping up as a battle of wills between protesters and the government - and those caught in between. On the one side are demonstrators who say they want to suspend the country's fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms, and on the other, forces supporting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and civilians who know the election will do little to solve the nation's crisis but insist the right to vote should not be taken away.
"How did we get to this point?" asked Chanida Pakdeebanchasak, a 28-year-old Bangkok resident who is determined to cast her ballot. "Since when does going to vote mean you don't love the country?"
The protesters, a minority that cannot win power at the polls, are demanding the government be replaced by an unelected council that would implement political and electoral reforms to combat what they see as deep-seated problems of corruption and money politics.
Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she is open to reform and such a council would be unconstitutional.
The crisis - in which 10 people have been killed and nearly 600 wounded since November - has overshadowed campaigning.
Although unrest has hit Bangkok and polling stations may not open in some parts of the south if ballot materials do not arrive in time, voting is expected to proceed smoothly in most of the country. Police will deploy 100,000 officers nationwide, while the army is putting 5,000 soldiers in Bangkok to boost security.
More than 47 million people are registered to vote, but the outcome will probably be inconclusive as protesters have blocked candidate registration in some districts and parliament will not have enough members to convene. That means Yingluck will be unable to form a government or pass a budget and Thailand will be stuck in political limbo for months as by-elections are run in constituencies that were unable to vote.