Thai troops clashed with protesters for a third day in Bangkok on Saturday as streets in the center of the Asian metropolis became battlegrounds and authorities struggled to contain demonstrators demanding the prime minister's resignation.

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Thai troops clashed with protesters for a third day in Bangkok on Saturday as streets in the center of the Asian metropolis became battlegrounds and authorities struggled to contain demonstrators demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

Explosions and street fighting have killed 17 people and wounded nearly 160 since the government attempted Thursday to seal off the 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) zone the Red Shirt protesters have occupied in one of the capital’s most upscale areas.

Fighting spread Saturday to several streets leading to the encampment, and the army set up barricades in an attempt to seal off the area, where all shops, hotels and businesses were closed.

Demonstrators, meanwhile, accused government snipers of picking people off with head shots.

The spiraling violence has raised concerns that Thailand – a longtime tourism magnet that promotes its easygoing culture as the “Land of Smiles” – was teetering toward instability. The political uncertainty has spooked foreign investors and damaged the vital tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy, Southeast Asia’s second largest.

Troops have used tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds on demonstrators after they set fire to tires and a police bus on Friday. The government accuses them of using guns, grenades and firebombs.

On Saturday, soldiers unrolled razor wire across roads leading to the Ratchaprarop area – a commercial district north of the main protest site – and pinned Thai and English-language notices saying “Live Firing Zone” and “Restricted Area. No Entry.”

Ratchaprarop houses high-rise buildings, posh hotels and designer shops. It was the scene of some of the worst fighting Friday night between troops and anti-government protesters.

Sporadic clashes resumed in several parts of the city Saturday, and explosions once again echoed through streets emptied of shoppers and tourists, as plumes of black smoke rose amid skyscrapers and hotels.

The army says it is not shooting to kill, but protesters crawled along sidewalks to slowly drag away corpses of three people near the city’s Victory Monument traffic circle in the Ratchaprarop area. They told an Associated Press photographer army snipers had shot all three in the head.

The latest violence erupted Thursday after the Red Shirts’ military strategist – a former army general – was shot in the head and critically wounded, apparently by a sharpshooter, as he spoke to foreign journalists.

“The situation right now is getting closer to civil war every minute,” a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said. “We have to fight on. The leaders shouldn’t even think about retreat when our brothers are ready to fight on.”

In a message from New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to both sides to “do all within their power to avoid further violence and loss of life.”

The Red Shirts, mostly rural poor, began camping in the capital March 12 to try to force out Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. About 10,000 have barricaded themselves in a protest zone in Rajprasong, Bangkok’s premier shopping and diplomatic enclave. They have set up a perimeter of tires and bamboo stakes, refusing to leave until Abhisit dissolves Parliament and calls new elections.

They claim his coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it is indifferent to the poor.

In several rounds of violence since then, a total 46 people have been killed and at least 1,620 wounded, according to a government toll that includes the most recent clashes.

“I am gravely concerned that a bloody suppression will only further entrench the culture of … violence in Thailand,” Tyrell Haberkorn, a political scientist with The Australian National University, said by e-mail.

She said the protests stem from the outrage the marginalized majority feel at the lack of say they have in governance, which is largely in the hands of the elites.

“If one listens to the protesters … people are willing to risk their lives because they believe that they are making a more just Thai society for themselves, their children and their grandchildren,” she said.

Another protest leader, Weng Tojirakarn, demanded the government declare a cease-fire and pull back its troops because “we don’t want to see a civil war. If it does happen, I don’t know how many years it will take to end.”

The Red Shirts especially despise the military, which had forced Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist premier favored by the Red Shirts, from office in a 2006 coup. Two subsequent pro-Thaksin governments were disbanded by court rulings before Abhisit became prime minister.

The Red Shirts’ occupation has forced luxury hotels and high-end shops to close for weeks. Major roads around the protest site were blocked to traffic Saturday, and the city’s subway and elevated train shut down.

The U.S. Embassy said it will evacuate family members of its staff who want to leave the volatile Thai capital.

The crisis had appeared to be reaching a resolution last week when Abhisit offered to hold elections in November, a year early. But the hopes were dashed after Red Shirt leaders made more demands.

Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Vijay Joshi, Chris Blake, Grant Peck and Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report. Additional research by Warangkana Tempati.