BANGKOK: Leaders of Thailand's anti-government "Red Shirt" protesters said on Saturday that they would surrender to police next month, but refused to end their rally in the capital's commercial heartland.
One week on from deadly clashes between the Red Shirts and security forces, the protesters said they expected a new push by the army to disperse them after its chief was put in charge of security in the strife-torn capital. "On May 15, 24 of us will surrender. All of the leaders," said one of the top Red Shirts, Nattawut Saikuar. "For now the 24 of us will keep rallying to show sincerely that we won't run away," he said. "I'm sure the order to suppress us will come out soon."
The Red Shirts, who are seeking immediate elections, have so far ignored repeated calls by authorities to disperse from the capital's commercial heartland, despite arrest warrants outstanding against core leaders. They support fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra and accuse the government of elitism and being undemocratic as it came to power after a parliamentary vote that followed a court verdict ousting Thaksin's allies.
Late Friday, embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva put his army chief Anupong Paojinda in charge of security, after a bungled operation to arrest some protest leaders at a hotel in Bangkok's northern outskirts. Key Red Shirts gave alms to monks on their rally stage on Saturday, in memory of last weekend's violence that left 23 people dead and more than 800 injured.
The mostly poor and rural-based red-clad movement has since abandoned its rally spot close to where the violence took place to instead reinforce numbers in a Bangkok district home to luxury hotels and shopping malls.
The military has said it will make a renewed attempt to disperse the protesters but has given no further details of its plans. "There will be an effort to retake the area. We can't allow protests there because it damages the country," army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd told reporters late Friday.
Abhisit said that he was replacing his deputy as head of security operations in the capital, giving Anupong broader powers to tackle "terrorism". "The government reassures you that we will restore normalcy," he said in a nationally televised address.
The decision came after commandos earlier Friday stormed a hotel where leaders of the Red Shirt protest movement were hiding, but the mission ended in dramatic failure after the suspects managed to flee.
One Red Shirt leader climbed down an electric cable from the third floor of the hotel in Bangkok's northern outskirts before being rushed away by jubilant supporters, despite the presence of dozens of riot police nearby. The operation "was not a success but the government will carry on", Abhisit said. The setback to the authorities came almost a week after the army tried in vain to clear an area of the capital of anti-government demonstrators, triggering the country's deadliest civil unrest in 18 years.
The Reds, who began their mass rallies on March 12, say their Siam Square rally spot will be the scene of the "final round" in their fight to overthrow the government. Abhisit has blamed "terrorists" for inciting last weekend's violent street clashes, which sparked bloody gun battles in the heart of the capital.
The government, which imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas more than a week ago, has accused Thaksin of stoking the unrest. A legal aide announced Thaksin is to sue Thailand's Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya after the politician called him a "bloody terrorist". "Dr Thaksin has assigned a team of lawyers to bring a libel case, both civil and criminal, against Mr. Kasit," Noppadon Pattama told AFP.