Thai protesters march on foreign ministry

BANGKOK, Feb 25, 2009 (AFP) - Red-clad protesters marched on Thailand's foreign ministry Wednesday, hours after the prime minister evaded demonstrators besieging his offices for a second day in their bid to unseat the government.

Thai soldiers patrol while standing guard during a rally by supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra outside Government House in Bangkok on Feb. 25 (Photo: AFP)

Up to 10,000 supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra dressed in their trademark crimson shirts surrounded Bangkok's Government House compound Tuesday demanding fresh elections, with many camping outside overnight.

Protest leaders have vowed to fight on, piling pressure on new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva just days ahead of the key regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which has already been delayed.

Police said about 2,000 protesters remained outside the heavily fortified gates of Government House on Wednesday, and Abhisit slipped past his foes and entered his offices early under the watch of hundreds of police and soldiers.

"The rally is generally peaceful and I thank officials who did not cause any clashes," Abhisit told reporters after leaving Government House again for appointments. "I will continue to go to work as usual."

Deputy Premier Suthep Thaugsuban said it would be "no problem" for the government if the protests went on for a month, but added that they were willing to hold talks with anti-government leaders to defuse the situation.

The "Red Shirts" have campaigned against the government since a court dissolved the pro-Thaksin former ruling party in December, paving the way for British-born Abhisit to take power in a parliamentary vote.

As well as calling for the dissolution of parliament, they are demanding Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya resign because of his links to anti-Thaksin group the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

They also want the constitution amended and PAD leaders charged for their occupation of Bangkok's two airports late last year, the peak of six months of protests aimed at toppling the pro-Thaksin government elected in December 2007.

On Wednesday afternoon, a splinter group of hundreds of protesters headed to the foreign ministry, waving red flags and shouting "foreign minister get out!" an AFP correspondent at the scene said.

"The Red Shirts are not going to negotiate with the government as proposed by Suthep until the government complies with our four demands," said Nattawut Saikuar, one of the protest group's leaders.

"Protests will be prolonged."

Tuesday's rally forced the premier to move his weekly cabinet meeting to the beach resort of Hua Hin, the location of the ASEAN summit, which was originally scheduled for December but delayed after the PAD stormed the airports.

Red Shirt leaders have said they will stay outside Government House for at least three days, but have vowed not to disrupt the Hua Hin summit.

Abhisit insisted that the rally was not an embarrassment for the kingdom ahead of the summit.

"Everybody understands that peaceful demonstrations are common in a democratic country," he said.

Thailand has endured years of political upheaval rooted in a deep divide between friends and enemies of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

Telecommunications tycoon Thaksin is loathed by elements of the old power cliques in the military, palace and bureaucracy -- the core of the PAD's support -- who felt threatened by his immense popularity with the rural poor.

Source: AFP

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