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5 dead after Thai police clash with anti-government protesters in Bangkok

By Kocha Olarn and Jethro Mullen, CNN
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 0000 GMT (0800 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The death toll from Tuesday's clashes rises to five, officials say
  • NEW: The number of wounded, both police and protesters, reaches 73
  • Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing charges from anti-graft body
  • Police are trying to clear groups of protesters from the center of the city

Editor's note: iReport: Are you there? Share your photos and videos, but please stay safe.

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) -- Thailand's bitter political crisis intensified Tuesday as five people were killed in clashes between anti-government protesters and police, and the country's anti-corruption commission filed charges against the Prime Minister.

The violence erupted in the heart of Bangkok after months of protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that have deepened political divisions in the Southeast Asian nation.

A police officer died after he was shot in the head, and four other people -- at least two of them protesters -- were also killed, officials said.

Seventy-three people, both police officers and protesters, were wounded in the clashes Tuesday, according to the Erawan Emergency Center, a medical unit monitoring the unrest in Thailand.

10 questions: What's behind the protests in Thailand?

Police were trying to clear demonstrators, who have been campaigning against Yingluck for months in central Bangkok.

Hospital workers evacuate an injured villager after an attack near an anti-government rally in Khao Saming in Thailand's Trat province on Sunday, February 23. A 5-year-old girl was killed and more than 30 others wounded when attackers sprayed bullets on an anti-government rally in eastern Thailand, police said. Hospital workers evacuate an injured villager after an attack near an anti-government rally in Khao Saming in Thailand's Trat province on Sunday, February 23. A 5-year-old girl was killed and more than 30 others wounded when attackers sprayed bullets on an anti-government rally in eastern Thailand, police said.
Political turmoil in Thailand
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After police fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse crowds of demonstrators in the streets, people among the protesters began firing guns at police.

With the two sides about 200 meters (656 feet) apart, police responded by firing rubber bullets and live ammunition.

During the firefight, which lasted about 20 minutes, a grenade exploded near a group of police officers, knocking them to the ground. At least four of them were wounded, said Lt. Gen. Paradon Patthanathabut, the national security chief.

Thousands of protesters

About 6,000 demonstrators were estimated to be on the streets of the city Tuesday, Paradon said, and thousands of security personnel have been mobilized.

Protesters opposed to Yingluck have been camped out since November at official buildings around the city, including Government House, the office of the prime minister and appointed cabinet ministers.

Leaders of the protests say they want Yingluck's government replaced by an unelected "people council," which would oversee electoral and political changes.

Clashes among pro- and anti-government groups had flared up during the crisis, leaving at least 10 people dead and hundreds wounded. The government responded by imposing a state of emergency last month.

Police move in

Until recently, authorities had largely refrained from confronting the demonstrators directly, even when they prevented large numbers of people from voting in recent elections.

That changed last week as police began attempts to seize sites occupied by protesters for months.

Government officials said the protesters' actions were blocking public access to government services, making intervention by authorities necessary.

Officials claimed public sentiment was turning against the demonstrators. But the protesters have so far refused to give way.

Police said they arrested 145 protesters near the Ministry of Energy on Tuesday.

Rice subsidy controversy

As the violence unfolded on the streets, Yingluck faced pressure on another front when Thailand's anti-corruption commission said it was bringing charges against her over a rice-subsidy program.

The National Counter-Corruption Commission said in a statement that it was calling Yingluck to appear February 27 to face charges that she failed to act on warnings of corruption in the program that her government introduced in 2011.

The program, which offered farmers well above the market rate for their rice, has run into financial problems. Problems with the subsidy program have angered many farmers, who make up part of Yingluck's support base in the north and east of Thailand.

The anti-corruption commission's charges could eventually lead to the suspension of Yingluck from all political positions.

In a televised speech before the commission's announcement, Yingluck said the rice subsidy program had been successful over the past two years and accused her political opponents of "obstructing the government's implementation of the project."

She said there was "no conspiracy to corrupt."

Long-running crisis

Protesters say Yingluck is a puppet of her billionaire brother, the deposed, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The protests were sparked in November by Yingluck's government's botched attempt to pass an amnesty bill that would have paved the way for her brother's return to the political fray in earnest.

Yingluck had hoped the elections held earlier this month could help ease tensions. But the main opposition party boycotted the vote and protesters caused widespread disruption.

That left the outcome of the election inconclusive, without enough results to reopen parliament.

It remains unclear when election officials will be able to complete the voting in disrupted areas.

The civil unrest of recent months is the worst to hit Thailand since a crackdown on pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2010 left scores of people dead.

Protesters pledge more demonstrations

Trapped in a gunfight: CNN producer's harrowing account

CNN's Kocha Olarn reported from Bangkok, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong.

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