Thai PM rejects protesters' demand to step down

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Tuesday refused demands by anti-government protesters to resign ahead of upcoming elections, urging them to abandon their "people's revolution".

Bangkok has been shaken by more than a month of mass opposition rallies aimed at ousting Yingluck and ridding the kingdom of the influence of her older brother, deposed former leader Thaksin.

An estimated 7,000 protesters gathered in the city on Tuesday afternoon calling for the elected government to step down, a sharp drop from the roughly 140,000 people who attended on Monday.

The demonstrators are a loosely-allied group united by their animosity towards Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-politician who was overthrown in a military coup seven years ago but is widely thought to control the government from abroad.

Yingluck, who called an early election on Monday in an effort to calm the political turmoil, said her cabinet was legally-bound to act as an interim government until the polls are held.

"I would like the protesters to stop and to use the electoral system to choose who will become the next government," she told reporters after a cabinet meeting early Tuesday.

A visibly emotional Yingluck - who said she had not discussed with party colleagues whether she would run in the Feb 2 election - reacted angrily to protesters' calls that her family be removed from Thailand.

"I have retreated as far as I can - give me some fairness," she said.

Rally leader Suthep Thaugsuban has rejected elections and vowed to set up a parallel government that would suspend the democratic system in Thailand and redraw its constitution.

The firebrand former deputy prime minister, who faces an arrest warrant for insurrection over the protests, issued an ultimatum late Monday calling on Yingluck and her colleagues to resign from the caretaker government.

Huge crowds converged on the government headquarters on Monday in one of the largest turnouts since the protests began, bringing with them a caravan of food stalls and vendors of a wide variety of protest paraphernalia - from t-shirts to tiaras.

Numbers had dwindled dramatically overnight after Bangkok-based protesters returned to their homes to sleep.

Thaksin is loathed by many in the royalist elite and Bangkok middle class, but loved among the working classes and those in his rural north-eastern heartland.

His overthrow in 2006 by generals loyal to the king ushered in years of political turmoil and rival street protests by the royalist "Yellow Shirts" and Thaksin's supporters, known as the "Red Shirts".

Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election in more than a decade, but all governments linked to the divisive former premier since 2006 have been cut short by military or judicial intervention without serving a full term.

Observers have raised fears that if another Thaksin-allied government is forcibly removed it could trigger a fresh round of violence in the politically turbulent nation.

Yingluck's ruling Puea Thai Party is widely expected to win the upcoming vote, bolstered by Thaksin's enduring popularity.

The opposition Democrat Party - whose MPs resigned en masse on Sunday because they could not achieve anything in parliament - has not won an elected majority in about two decades.

Democrat Party officials said on Monday they had not yet decided whether to take part in the upcoming election.

Tensions remain high after several days of street clashes last week when police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets against rock-throwing demonstrators.

The unrest, which saw protesters besiege key government buildings, has left five people dead and more than 200 injured in street violence.

Police on Tuesday said they had found evidence of damage at offices in a sprawling government complex in suburban Bangkok used by protesters as their base for about a week until Tuesday.

"Some breakages were discovered in the offices of the Royal National Police. Investigators initially found damage to doors, drawers and computers," Police Major General Anucha Romyanan said.

The demonstrations were triggered by an amnesty bill, since dropped by Yingluck's ruling party, which opponents feared would have cleared the way for Thaksin's return.

The former premier went into exile in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction which he says was politically motivated.

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