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Thousands march demanding royal pardon for Thaksin

Tens of thousands of red-shirted supporters of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra have submitted a petition seeking a royal pardon for the fugitive billionaire. The protesters claim to have collected some five million signatures.

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AFP - More than 30,000 "Red Shirt" supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra handed in a petition Monday seeking a royal pardon for the fugitive former premier, further underscoring Thailand's deep political rifts.

Organisers say they have collected at least five million signatures in support of Thaksin, who was toppled in a military coup in 2006 and fled the kingdom last August to escape a two-year jail term for corruption.

"I would like to say thank you to my fellow Thais, who have a good attitude towards me and to Thailand," Thaksin said in a speech broadcast live by video from an undisclosed location to the cheering crowd in downtown Bangkok.

"We are here today to inform our father, the King of every Thai, that we want to see unity and reconciliation," said Thaksin, wearing the trademark red shirt favoured by his backers.

Billionaire tycoon Thaksin, 60, then turned to a portrait of Thailand's widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the royal family and sang a traditional royal song.

In their latest mass show of support for Thaksin, the protest group submitted their petition to the royal offices in Bangkok's Grand Palace in the afternoon. The petition was packed in 10 boxes wrapped in red cloth.

"The petition has been submitted to seek royal assistance to stop the people's suffering," said protest leader Nattawut Saikur.

Police Major General Vichai Sangkapai confirmed that 30,000 people had joined the rally so far and that 1,500 uniformed officers had been deployed to secure the rally site.

"So far the situation is normal, the rally is peaceful," he told AFP.

Current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took office in December, has warned Thaksin's supporters against signing the petition and said that only Thaksin or his family are allowed to submit it.

The Red Shirts launched the campaign last month following more than three years of sometimes violent confrontations between supporters and foes of Thaksin.

Thaksin's backers forced the cancellation of a major Asian summit in April and then rioted for two days in Bangkok before a crackdown by the army. Two people were killed and 123 injured.

Rival royalist "Yellow Shirts" shut down Bangkok's airports in late 2008, triggering the collapse of the previous, pro-Thaksin government and ushering Abhisit to power.

Twice-elected Thaksin still enjoys huge support among Thailand's poor, particularly in rural northern parts of the country, but is hated by the Bangkok-based elite in the palace, military and establishment.

The former policeman is currently being tried in absentia on a separate corruption charge relating to 2.2 billion dollars of funds that were frozen by an anti-graft body soon after the coup.

Abhisit has said Thaksin, who has several passports and divides his time between a number of countries including Dubai, must return to Thailand to face justice.

Thailand's royal family is treated with almost religious adulation and protected by strict defamation laws. Rivals have accused Thaksin of trying to weaken the monarchy, a charge he strongly denies.

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