BANGKOK - More than 100,000 protesters rallied in Bangkok Wednesday in their biggest bid yet to topple premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, deepening Thailand's political crisis days before it hosts a key Asian summit.
Demonstrators wearing signature red shirts massed outside the house of a top royal aide whom they accuse of masterminding the 2006 coup that ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawtra and eventually led to Abhisit's rise.
They also gathered outside the offices of the British-born Abhisit, where protesters have staged a sit-in for the past two weeks, chanting "Bring Thaksin back, Abhisit get out!"
Billionaire tycoon Thaksin, who is living in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption, thanked his supporters in a speech delivered via videolink after nightfall.
"I was overwhelmed to see this sea of red," Thaksin said.
"I want to congratulate the entire Thai nation. We are gathering here because we are thirsty for real democracy," he added. "This fight is not for me, it's about our country, our people, our future generations."
Thousands of security forces guarded key sites across the capital, but there was no immediate sign of violence despite the prime minister's warnings that a core group of protesters would try to provoke bloodshed.
"We came here to expel the government," protest leader Nattawut Saikuar told the cheering crowd of so-called "Red Shirts," adding that they planned to stay in place until Friday.
Abhisit rejected the protesters' demands to dissolve his four-month-old administration and hold fresh elections, warning of strong action if there was any violence.
"The government will act decisively with any provocateurs," he told reporters. "I will not dissolve the house because of violence."
He said some protesters wanted to trigger "chaos on the streets," adding that an attack on his car on Tuesday in the beach resort of Pattaya showed there were deliberate efforts to provoke the government.
Police issued a formal warning to protesters not to enter the house of General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former premier who is now a key aide to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, after thousands of demonstrators ringed the compound.
Bangkok deputy police commander Lieutenant General Chakthip Chaijinda said he had informed Abhisit that there were more than 100,000 protesters in the city and that more were expected overnight, raising security fears.
"We are worried that third parties may act tonight and may launch a bomb attack," he said. "But we have enough officials and also a large number on standby."
Abhisit insisted there was no threat to a summit of Asian leaders, including the Chinese and Japanese premiers, due to start Friday in Pattaya where the attack on his car took place.
The unrest has prompted speculation that Thailand's army could try to mount another coup, but powerful army chief General Anupong Paojinda dismissed talk of a putsch.
Thaksin's recent accusations that Prem conspired to overthrow him broke a major taboo in Thailand, where royalty is revered, and fuelled the risk of what Abhisit described earlier this week as a "civil war."
The "Red Shirts" remain furious about the way Abhisit took power in December following a court decision that removed allies of Thaksin from government.
That ruling came after months of protests by rival yellow-clad protesters claiming allegiance to the monarchy, who occupied Government House and mounted a crippling blockade of Bangkok's airports.
The nation remains deeply divided between Thaksin's followers among the urban and rural poor and his foes in Bangkok's traditional power cliques of the palace, military and bureaucracy.
The country is also facing its first recession since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, with the central bank cutting interest rates for the fourth time in four months on Wednesday. - AFP