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Friday, April 24, 2009

Thais who rioted last week call for new protests

Image by Getty Images via Daylife
AP: Thai protesters who led riots in Bangkok last week called for a new rally this weekend, just hours after the prime minister lifted an emergency decree and said the country had return to normal Friday.

The renewed call for protest followed a special parliamentary session that sought to heal the political divide between supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But the two marathon sessions were dominated by partisan bickering over who was to blame for the violence and did little to resolve the deepening crisis.

Authorities continued efforts to locate Thaksin, whose ouster in 2006 set off a series of demonstrations. Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, fled the country last year ahead of a corruption conviction.

The fugitive tycoon traveled to Liberia earlier this week to inquire about investing in diamonds, officials said, continuing his global wanderings in pursuit of business ventures. Liberia, known as a tax haven, is eager to lure foreign investors as it tries to move beyond its dark history of civil war that was funded and fueled by so-called "blood diamonds."

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva lifted the emergency Friday following a special parliamentary session that was called to find a solution to the country's political crisis. Many opposition lawmakers had argued that maintaining the emergency decree was inflaming the still-tense situation in Thailand.

"This is a signal to the world that the country has returned to normal," Abhisit told reporters, adding that soldiers would remain in sensitive areas of the capital to assist police.

The state of emergency was imposed in Bangkok on April 12 as protests led by Thaksin's supporters swelled in the capital. The decree banned gatherings of more than five people and news reports that threatened public order and allowed the government to call up military troops to quell unrest.

The protests were the latest round in a long-running feud. Opponents of Thaksin _ the "yellow shirts" who argue that voters in his rural base are too easily bought, began demonstrations in 2006 that precipitated a military coup that ousted him. But after his allies were voted in again, they took to the streets last year in demonstrations that culminated in the closure of Bangkok's airports.

Court rulings eventually removed Thaksin-allied governments to from power, paving the way for Abhisit's rise and setting off the latest round of demonstrations by their rivals, the "red shirts." Protesters said the rulings were biased and political.

The red shirts are demanding Abhisit's resignation and new elections. Two people were killed and 123 injured as protesters clashed with troops and residents.

Shortly after the emergency decree was lifted, protest leader Somyod Preuksakasemsuk said the red shirts would hold a peaceful rally in Bangkok on Saturday evening. The rally was originally scheduled to take place outside of Bangkok because of the emergency decree's ban on public gatherings.

Bangkok's police chief, Lt. Gen. Worapong Chiewpreecha, said security officials will remain vigilant to prevent new violence.

"Peaceful gathering is possible within the law now. But we will not allow it to get out of hand or turn violent," Worapong said.

Thaksin, who still enjoys wide support among the rural poor because of his social welfare programs while in office, addressed demonstrators from exile via video link during the run-up to this month's riots, and at one point called for a "revolution."

He changed his message after the rioting and joined political rivals in calling for reconciliation.

Thaksin's whereabouts continue to dominate headlines in Thailand and taunt the government, which holds him responsible for the recent violence and is trying to extradite him.

Liberian Information Minister Cletus Sieh told The Associated Press that Thaksin had been in the country earlier this week and met with its vice president and other officials "to explore the possibility of investing in the gold and diamond sector."

The government has revoked Thaksin's personal and diplomatic passports, but he now has a Nicaraguan diplomatic passport and is reported to have others.

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