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Red shirt leaders to ‘turn themselves over’ after raid

Thai protest leaders who have been rallying in Bangkok for more than a month will turn themselves over to police on May 15, one of their leaders told AFP on Saturday.

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However, they said that they would not end their rally in the capital’s commercial heartland.

“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.”

PM puts army chief in charge of security after bungled raid

Earlier, the embattled prime minister earlier put his army chief in charge of security in the capital Friday after a bungled raid on a hotel where leaders of the Red Shirt protest movement were holed up.

Authorities are turning up the heat again on anti-government demonstrators after a lull in tensions between the two sides, whose standoff descended into the country’s deadliest civil unrest in two decades last weekend.

The military said it was planning another operation to disperse the thousands of protesters from Bangkok’s commercial district but the timing had not yet been decided.

“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.

Government vows to return ‘normalcy’

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said that he was replacing his deputy as head of security operations in the capital, giving army chief Anupong Paojinda broader powers to tackle “terrorism”.

“The government reassures you that we will restore normalcy,” he said in a nationally televised address.

Experts said the move suggested the authorities might be preparing another crackdown, following last Saturday’s bloody clashes that left 23 people dead.

Authorities in bungled hotel raid

It also came after commandos earlier Friday stormed a Bangkok hotel where leaders of the Red Shirt protest movement were hiding, but the mission ended in dramatic failure after the suspects managed to flee.

“They tried to arrest the co-leaders of the Red Shirts and they were unable to do so. I think that was another humiliation,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

“When you let the military control a situation it hardly ever ends nice and peacefully. There’s a possibility it might turn nasty.”

One leading Red Shirt 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.

“Police kicked the door open and threw smoke and stun grenades into the room, but luckily I ran to the window and used an electric cord to climb down,” said one of the Red Shirt leaders who fled the hotel, Arisman Pongruangrong.

“Now our mission is to hunt down Abhisit and (deputy PM) Suthep. Our patience is at its limit,” he said at the main rally stage in the commercial district in the heart of the Thai capital.

The Reds, who began their mass rallies on March 12, say the area will be the scene of the “final round” in their fight to overthrow the government.

Investors fret at chaos

The turmoil has spooked investors, with Thai stocks plunging 3.25 percent on Friday as trading resumed after a three-day break for the Thai New Year. The market has tumbled almost seven percent over the past two trading days.

Arrest warrants have been issued for many of the Red Shirt leaders, including Arisman, who is accused of involvement in the storming of parliament earlier this month as well as an Asian summit in Pattaya last year.

The mostly poor and rural red-clad supporters of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra say the government is illegitimate because it came to power in 2008 after a court ousted Thaksin’s allies from power.

Two police officers were taken by the protesters from the hotel to the rally site and briefly interrogated by Red Shirts, but they later told reporters that they had not been taken hostage but wanted to ensure Arisman’s safety.

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 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.