BANGKOK - Thai banks' bad loans rose slightly in the third quarter and should still increase gradually, helped by financial support measures, the central bank said on Friday, as the Southeast Asian country deals with its longest coronavirus outbreak.

The banking system remained strong with high levels of capital buffers, loan loss provisions and liquidity, the Bank of Thailand (BOT) said in a statement.

The BOT will closely monitor the situation and prevent non-performing loans (NPLs) from surging so that debtors and lenders can manage their debt, Suwannee Jatsadasake, a senior BOT director, told a briefing.

"We'll try to push banks to help their debtors and will introduce relief measures in line with the situation," she said.

NPLs at banks stood at 3.14% of total lending at the end of September, up slightly from 3.09% as of June, said the BOT, which has offered a series of debt relief measures.

In the third quarter, banks' overall loans grew 5.6% year-on-year, up from a 3.7% rise in the previous quarter, as demand from businesses increased along with economic recovery, it said.

Lending to small and medium-sized businesses in the September quarter grew for a second straight quarter, up 2.3% from a year earlier, driven by the BOT's loan measures, it said.

However, consumer loan growth slowed to 4.2% in the third quarter from 5.7% in the previous quarter due to lower demand from the housing and auto sectors, the BOT said.

(Reporting by Orathai Sriring, Kitiphong Thaichareon and Satawasin Staporncharnchai; Editing by Martin Petty and Sanjeev Miglani) ((;))