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BANGKOK — Thailand's powerful military chief intervened Tuesday for the first time in the country's latest political crisis, declaring martial law and dispatching gun-mounted jeeps into the heart of the capital with a vow to resolve the deepening conflict as quickly as possible.

The move stopped short of a coup and left the nation's increasingly cornered caretaker government intact, along with the constitution. Life continued normally with residents unfazed by the news, which follows six months of crippling protests that killed 28 people and injured more than 800.

But the intervention left the country at another precarious crossroads, its fate now squarely in the hands of the military.

"The key going forward will be the military's role in politics," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "If they play the role of enforcer of law and order and even mediator ... this could be a resolution to the impasse."

But if they don't, "we can expect protests and turmoil from the losing side."

Thailand, an economic hub for Southeast Asia whose turquoise waters and idyllic beaches are a world tourist destination, has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for Thailand's king.

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