BANGKOK: Military helicopters airlifted government ministers from Thailand's parliament Wednesday after angry protesters stormed the building in a dramatic escalation of their bid to topple the government.
Two Blackhawk helicopters landed under the guard of armed soldiers to rescue the deputy prime minister and other senior government figures after other lawmakers fled.
Red-shirted protesters, many of whom support fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, had forced their way into Thailand's parliamentary compound, smashing through the gates with a truck.
"Our mission is completed," Korkaew Pikulthong, one of the Red Shirt leaders, told the crowd after the politicians fled and the parliament session was cancelled.
When he learnt that the Reds were approaching, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva left a cabinet meeting there for a military barracks in the city's northern outskirts, where he has been based for most of the weeks-long protest.
The cabinet extended a tough security law on Wednesday as protesters refused to leave Bangkok's main commercial district, where they have been since Saturday.
The demonstrators are mostly from Thailand's rural poor and working class and see Abhisit's government as elitist and undemocratic.
Police said a grenade exploded shortly after midnight next to a supermarket in Bangkok, injuring one man, in the latest unexplained attack since the rallies began in mid-March.
Government spokesman Supachai Jaisamut said the authorities were ready to use emergency law if needed.
"If the situation deteriorates, it's necessary for the government to invoke emergency rule," he said. Abhisit cancelled a planned trip to the United States for a nuclear security summit next week due to the unrest.
The Reds have been emboldened after the police and army backed down on Tuesday following a tense standoff in the capital's tourist heartland. The authorities have threatened the protesters with a year in jail but so far no arrests have been made.
Security forces have refrained from using force to disperse the tens of thousands of protesters, who have been roaming the capital, disrupting traffic and causing major shopping centres to shut.
The government said it would act if needed to end the protests, but reiterated that it wanted a peaceful resolution to the standoff.
The Reds say the government is illegitimate because it came to power with army backing through a parliamentary vote in December 2008 after a court decision ousted Thaksin's allies from power.
The mainly poor and rural followers of Thaksin, a billionaire telecoms tycoon who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption, fervently support the populist policies he introduced before his ouster in a 2006 coup.
Thaksin sought to rally his supporters on Wednesday in a brief message through the micro-blogging service Twitter, praising their "courage, patience and unity."
On Tuesday protesters threw plastic bottles, pushed against police barricades and later took over the streets of central Bangkok on motorcycles and in pick-up trucks, pouring into the capital's financial district.
The military has mounted a heavy security response, deploying 50,000 personnel at one point to try to contain the protests, which drew as many as 100,000 people on the first day on March 14.
But the government wants to avoid a repeat of last April's clashes with Red Shirts that left two people dead, six months after riot police took on the rival Yellow Shirts in bloody scenes outside parliament.