BANGKOK Thai anti-government protesters stepped up security at their base in an upmarket Bangkok shopping center on Saturday, a week after bloody clashes with security forces killed 24 people.
Thousands of protesters gathered under leaden skies to commemorate the deaths as more permanent fixtures of medical supplies, sanitary facilities and foodstalls were set up.
The "red shirts" have pledged to turn the area into a "final battleground" to oust Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, forcing high-end malls to close and sending tourists fleeing the area.
Abhisit said he would crack down on violent elements among protesters whom he calls "terrorists" and on Friday put his army chief in charge of security operations at the expense of Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban after a bungled attempt to arrest red shirt leaders.
However, he made no indication there would be immediate attempt to dislodge the protesters, calling for patience.
"There has been more talk of crackdown and possible attempts to take us in, so we have to make sure we are not infiltrated," protest leader Nattawut Saikua said, adding that the red shirts had no plans to march on Saturday and Sunday.
The red shirt leaders would make new sleeping arrangements at undisclosed locations, Nattawut said, as leaders recruited more volunteers among protesters to become their "guards."
The heightened security came after some leaders were surrounded by police on Friday morning. One made an escape by climbing down a hotel by rope, making headlines and highlighting security forces' failure at crowd control.
The red shirts back former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and want Abhisit to call snap elections, something the Oxford-educated premier has refused to do.
They threatened to march to a nearby business district on Monday, targeting Bangkok Bank's headquarters.
"We are considering taking our fight to a business associated with the ruling elite," said a leader Suporn Attawong.
Thailand's biggest bank was targeted in February by the protesters who accused it of crony capitalism amid ties to Prem Tinsulanonda, a former premier and chief adviser of Thailand's revered king.
Prem, an honorary adviser to the bank's chairman, is also accused of playing a role in the coup against Thaksin, accusations which he has repeatedly denied.
The political crisis in Thailand has hit tourism, a mainstay of Southeast Asia's second largest economy, hard and caused a selloff in the stock market which has given up almost all of this year's gains as foreign investors have sold heavily.
Protesters held a Buddhist ceremony to mark last weekend's clashes. Leaders gave monks alms and flowers, asking for blessings on behalf of their late comrades.
Although Bangkok was quiet seven days after the bloody clashes in which 19 protesters and 5 soldiers were killed and more than 800 people wounded, few expect a peaceful or fast resolution of the conflict.
Supporters of the government came out in thousands to express their disapproval of the red shirts on Friday.
Adding to the risk of clashes among civilians, an anti-Thaksin protest group known as the "yellow shirts," who in 2008 occupied Bangkok airport, said they would meet on Sunday to discuss their next move.
GOVT LOOKS TO ARMY
Abhisit made the first appearance on national television in four days on Friday from a fortified barracks on the outskirts of Bangkok, putting army chief General Anupong Paochinda in charge of security operations.
The move appeared to bind Anupong, who retires in September, into the government after he had expressed reluctance to use force, calling for the crisis to be resolved with "political solutions."
"A lot of people are losing patience and they are blaming the government for its failure to end this," said Sombat Thamrongthanyawong of the National Institute of Development Administration.
"At the same time, the government cannot do anything without the army's wholehearted backing to go in and crack down. So it's a continued paralysis that undermines the government's popularity and credibility," he said.
The seemingly intractable crisis has fueled speculation that hardliners within the powerful military may decide to stage a coup to end the impasse, a move which analysts say would likely backfire with possibly violent response from the red shirts.
Coup rumors abound during each round of crisis in Thailand which has seen 18 successful coups since 1932.
(Writing by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Nick Macfie)