BANGKOK A Thai court issued orders on Tuesday to arrest former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on terrorism charges in connection with riots over the past two months that were the worst in the country's modern history.
Armed with the arrest warrant, Thai prosecutors and the Foreign Ministry will launch a global hunt for the fugitive telecoms tycoon, a top government official said.
Thaksin was last believed to be in France for the Cannes film festival, but he keeps his location secret.
"The court said there was enough evidence to believe that Thaksin was the mastermind, having played a significant role in instructing and manipulating the incidents," Department of Special Investigations chief Tharit Pengdit told Reuters, referring to the riots.
Government officials say Thaksin funded the 10-week, anti-government protests to the tune of about $1.5 million a day and is believed to have organized the smuggling of arms and fighters from Cambodia.
If found guilty, he can be sentenced to death.
The red shirt protesters have demanded that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva quit and call new elections, saying they have been disenfranchised by a Bangkok elite supported by the military. They mostly support Thaksin, who was prime minister until 2006 when he was ousted in a coup.
Thaksin denied the terrorism charges on his Twitter page, twitter.com/thaksinlive.
"As a prime minister who won two landslide election victories, I was ousted in a coup," Thaksin wrote in Thai. "As I was fighting peacefully for justice for the return of my robbed assets, I was slapped with terrorism charges."
At least 85 people were killed in Bangkok and more than 1,400 wounded in violence that began in April.
The violence peaked last week when almost 40 buildings were set on fire as the army dispersed thousands of anti-government protesters who had taken over the commercial heart of the city.
RHETORIC COULD INCITE TROUBLE
There have been no reports of violence in Bangkok since Thursday, when the red shirt protesters started to withdraw. But some have threatened to resume their campaign next month.
Jatuporn Prompan, a top red shirt leader who surrendered to the authorities but was freed on parliamentary immunity, said on Tuesday he did not support violence, but the current rhetoric from the government could lead to more unrest.
"A government reconciliation plan must not incite hatred, misunderstanding and finger-pointing ... otherwise this volcano will erupt," Jaturon told reporters after being interviewed by investigators.
In a move to help businesses and people affected by the riots, the cabinet approved a relief plan on Tuesday, including unspecified grants and 5 billion baht ($154 million) of soft loans, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij told reporters.
Bangkok, a city of 15 million, was operating as usual on Tuesday, but the government said a night curfew would stay in force until May 29, over concerns that some remnants of the hardcore protesters could launch more attacks.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said the curfew, which will be in force between midnight and 4 a.m. in the capital and 23 provinces, was necessary to prevent more unrest, but would not be in place for seven days, as was announced on Monday.
"We have cut the timeframe from seven to four days because we want to limit the impact on the public," Suthep told reporters. Thaksin is no stranger to arrest warrants and court cases. He jumped bail and fled abroad in 2008 when he was facing charges of corruption and was sentenced in absentia to two years in jail.
In February, Thailand's top court seized $1.4 billion of his assets, saying it was accrued through abuse of power.
(Addition reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)