BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand's coup leaders strengthened their grip on power Friday by sidelining key military supporters of the ousted prime minister, and one official said a former army commander and close adviser to the king had been picked as interim premier.
Thailand's auditor general, Jaruvan Maintaka, told reporters late Thursday that Gen. Surayud Chulanont, 62, a highly regarded retired officer, would lead the country until promised elections next year.
"Yes, definitely, Gen. Surayud is the prime minister. He is the suitable person," Jaruvan said. Her comments were posted on the government Public Relations Department's official Web site Friday.
But the government had not made its official announcement yet, and when telephoned Friday Jaruvan denied her comments, telling The Associated Press: "I didn't say so."
The new ruling military council has hinted that its choice is Surayud, and Friday morning Bangkok newspapers carried headlines that he would probably head the new government. His appointment was expected to be announced this weekend or Monday, after it receives approval from King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The coup leaders, meanwhile, tightened their hold by moving from key positions military officers who had been key supporters of now-deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
In an annual reshuffle of top-ranking officers announced Friday, a number of officers loyal to Thaksin were removed from commands and transferred to either inactive positions or attached to agencies that take them outside the chain of command.
An announcement in official media said the king endorsed the changes.
Two members of the ruling council — Gen. Winai Phattiyakul and Gen. Boonsang Niempradit — were given more powerful positions while five other army generals who had stood up to Thaksin likewise received promotions.
Winai is to become permanent secretary of the Defense Ministry, a key slot, while Boonsang was promoted from deputy supreme commander of the armed forces to supreme commander.
Patchara Kampitak, president of the Reporters Association of Thailand, told The Associated Press that reporters from several Thai media outlets visited coup leader Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin on Friday and received assurances "about freedom of the media."
Kampitak quoted Sondhi as saying the interim premier would not be a "surprise to the media."
"His face is familiar to you (reporters) and he is the man to `wai' (greet with respect) without any qualms," Kampitak quoted Sondhi as saying.
Akara Thiprot, a spokesman for the council, said an interim constitution has been completed and sent to the Royal Palace. He hoped the constitution could be announced Saturday or Sunday, followed by the formal announcement of the prime minister over the weekend or Monday.
The expected appointment of Surayad was likely to be widely praised in Thailand.
Over a 40-year career in the military, Surayud garnered a reputation for effectiveness, tact and incorruptibility. Upon his retirement in 2003, he was appointed to the Privy Council, the top advisory body to the king.
During his career he fought Thai communist insurgents and handled the sensitive situation along the embattled Cambodian border during the 1980s. He was regarded as close to the American military, which praised him throughout his career.
A devout Buddhist, Surayud spent time as a monk after leaving the army and often said he had no intention of entering the political fray.
Korn Chatikavanij, deputy general secretary of the Democrat Party, which opposed Thaksin, said earlier that Surayud is an "appropriate" choice.
Although being a former general might give the outside world the impression the military was merely transferring power to one of its cronies, that would be neither true nor relevant, he said.
"What is important is domestic reconciliation and Gen. Surayud is ideal for that," Korn told The Associated Press.
The coup leaders accused Thaksin of corruption and seized power in a bloodless takeover Sept. 19 while the premier was abroad, vowing to name a civilian prime minister within two weeks.
Thaksin is now in London and he has not indicated if or when he may try to return to Thailand.
Large demonstrations early this year demanding his ouster reflected a polarized Thai society, and many Thais have greeted the coup as a resolution of a national crisis.
The United States, which has decried the coup as a setback to democracy, on Thursday suspended $24 million in assistance to Thailand.