Troops retreat as 'red shirt' protesters mount fiery new rally

Thai troops withdrew from several security posts in Bangkok on Saturday as "red shirt" protesters rallied to demand new elections. The movement has accused the military of overthrowing twice-elected former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.


AFP - Thai troops retreated from security posts in the capital Saturday, bowing to demands from 80,000 jubilant red-shirted protesters who mounted a rally to demand fresh elections.

The "Red Shirts" loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra targeted seven points where soldiers have been stationed during two weeks of street demonstrations, including the city's zoo and Buddhist temples.


In the face of the huge crowds of flag-waving protesters, who arrived in cars, on motorbikes and on foot, the military agreed to withdraw from the positions in Bangkok's old quarter where the Reds' main rally base is situated.

Women threw flowers at the departing troops who smiled and snapped photos, drawing cheers from the protesters who turned the streets red with their colourful clothes and heart-shaped clappers.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the deputy prime minister in charge of national security, downplayed the withdrawal as an "adjustment" and said the troops would return later in the day.

"Right now they have to move out to avoid a confrontation," he said in a news conference from the army barracks on Bangkok's northern outskirts where the government is working from during the protests.

The Reds said the backdown was a boost for their campaign to replace the government, which came to power with army backing in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a controversial court ruling removed Thaksin's allies.

"We came here to oust the soldiers and the soldiers stepped back," said leader Arisman Pongrungrong. "We have made one step towards victory and we'll keep putting on the pressure until parliament is dissolved."

The military has mounted a heavy security response involving 50,000 personnel for the demonstrations, which began on March 14 after a court ruling that seized 1.4 billion dollars of Thaksin's fortune.

The tight measures, including a lockdown on parliament which was surrounded by concrete barricades and razor wire during a session this week, had been criticised as excessive.

Buoyed by their success, the Reds vowed to take their movement to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva by rallying Sunday at the military barracks where he has been holed up.

"We hope we will meet with Abhisit," said protest leader Veera Musikapong. "I hope tomorrow will be the end of this political rally."

Police estimated Saturday's crowd at 80,000, larger than a street parade a week ago that drew 65,000 people in a noisy but peaceful procession through Bangkok.

The rally was marred by two blasts, one of which injured two soldiers at an army-run television station, in the latest of a series of mysterious explosions to hit since the protests began.

The station, Channel 5, showed footage of the two soldiers with bleeding leg wounds being lifted into a pick-up truck and taken to hospital after a grenade was thrown at the station's compound.

Earlier Saturday, a small blast hit Thailand's customs department compound, shattering windows but causing no injuries.

Thaksin, who lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption, regularly addresses his supporters by videolink and on Thursday urged them to intensify pressure on the government.

He also raised the prospect of a campaign of civil disobedience if Abhisit continues to reject demands to dissolve parliament.

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