Armed Thai troops patrol Bangkok business district

BANGKOK (AP) — Thai troops with assault rifles entered Bangkok's business district Monday to deter a protest march and protect a key bank with razor wire barricades, while anti-government demonstrators stockpiled paving stones nearby in the tense capital.

A leader of the "Red Shirt" protesters, thousands of mostly rural demonstrators camped out in the capital since March 12 to demand the dissolution of Parliament, accused the troops of preparing the area to be "a killing field."

The government has declared Silom Road, a thoroughfare studded with bank headquarters and office buildings, off-limits to the protesters who have camped in the capital's main shopping district nearby for weeks in their bid to oust Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and hold new elections.

Protest leaders had called for a mass rally Tuesday, with some indicating it may be staged in the business district, raising concerns of more clashes after savage fighting a week ago killed 25 people. However, the protesters have often changed their plans to keep security forces off-guard, and early Monday they appeared poised to launch their march a day earlier than planned.

Troops initially moved in to block entry to Silom, resulting in a tense face-off. The troops later pulled back almost half its 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) length to protect a key target of the protesters, the headquarters of the Bangkok Bank which was barricaded by razor wire.

Many of the demonstrators also pulled back, but braced for battle. Protesters piled rudimentary weapons behind razor wire at the intersection— bricks pulled from the area's brick-lined pavements and stacks of bamboo rods.

"I'm worried about the force allocation pattern here. It looks greater than necessary for just guarding the Silom area," said a protest leader, Nattawut Saikua. "They are making it into a killing field."

Another protest leader, Weng Tojirakarn, said there had never been any intention to penetrate into Silom. "Some people might have mentioned it, but it's merely a personal opinion," he said.

The Red Shirts claim Bangkok Bank has close ties to the government. They have protested in front of the building previously on a smaller scale.

Earlier in the morning, soldiers also patrolled one of the city's most famous sex-bar strips, Patpong Road, and an entertainment area for Japanese tourists, which are just off Silom.

Some took positions atop buildings after searching for possible snipers and along a skywalk running several hundred meters (yards) above the road. Others guarded bank buildings, ATM machines and entrances to subway and overhead rail entrances.

A number of those returning to work on Silom after the long Thai New Year holidays expressed support for the troops.

"I'm opposed to the idea of the demonstrators entering Silom. Everything will collapse. The economy will collapse," said Kritsana Chumkong, a 38-year-old office worker.

The government accuses "terrorists" armed with guns and other weapons of orchestrating the earlier violence and says weapons were stolen from the military that have not been returned.

The protesters consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006.

They believe Abhisit heads an illegitimate government because it came to power through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected, pro-Thaksin administrations. The conflict has been characterized by some as class warfare, pitting the country's vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power.

A main target of the Red Shirts has been Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, who the loyalists say was a key leader in the military coup.

Prem is the president of the Privy Council, which advises the Thai king, and also serves as an adviser to the Bangkok Bank, one of the largest in Thailand.

The protesters claim that Prem helped arrange financing through the Bangkok Bank for a golf course that encroached on the Khao Soi Dao Wildlife Sanctuary in southeastern Thailand. That allegation, plus other accusations of shady business deals between Prem and the bank, have been denied.

Abhisit has come under increasing criticism for failing to clear the protesters, but the government spokesman said Saturday there were no immediate plans for a crackdown because too many people were camped in the area to use force.

The Red Shirt protesters, formally known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, want Abhisit to dissolve Parliament and call new elections. They were initially camped in a historic district of Bangkok, and a failed attempt by security forces on April 10 to flush protesters from that neighborhood erupted into the worst political violence Thailand has seen in 18 years.

At least 25 people were killed, including senior military officers. More than 800 people were wounded, including about 300 soldiers.

Since then, the protesters have consolidated in Bangkok's main shopping area, raising the stakes as they scare off tourists and rattle the stock market. Retailers and hotels say they have lost tens of millions of dollars.

Police have issued 24 arrest warrants for Red Shirt leaders accused of inciting violence, but so far none has been arrested. An attempt to arrest one leader Friday was thwarted when he climbed over a hotel balcony and was lowered by rope to a crowd of fellow Red Shirts, who helped him escape.


Associated Press Writers Jocelyn Gecker and Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.