news services
updated 4/16/2010 11:56:06 AM ET 2010-04-16T15:56:06

Thailand's prime minister put the army commander in charge of restoring order in the wake of bloody political unrest, taking the task away from the deputy prime minister after a botched raid Friday to nab protest leaders.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, speaking in a special television broadcast on all stations, said Gen. Anupong Paochinda would take charge of the peacekeeping force meant to prevent violence by red-shirted protesters who are seeking to topple his government.

"A decision has been made to make the command line more effective and swifter," Abhisit said. "Therefore I have made an order to change the person in charge to Anupong, the army commander."

He said the peacekeeping force will be able to "call in forces in a more united and integrated way, so that they can handle the terrorism-related activities specifically."

Tens of thousands of people have protested in Bangkok since March 12, demanding new elections. Adding to tensions on Friday, a crack down on what the government termed "terrorists" went awry when a protest leader at a hotel in Bangkok slid down a rope from a balcony to escape riot police.

The government rival then vowed to hunt down the prime minister, raising fears the nation's political crisis could spark more bloodshed.

Arisman Pongruangrong drove off in a getaway car with two senior police officers taken hostage by his supporters, in the latest humiliation for the government, which less than 30 minutes earlier had announced on national television that police commandos had surrounded the hotel to arrest Arisman and other protest leaders.

'Red Shirt' protesters
Authorities have tried without success to end a month of demonstrations by tens of thousands of "Red Shirt" protesters in some of Bangkok's most popular shopping and tourist districts. At least 24 people were killed last week when troops tried to clear one group of protesters.

Friday's failed crackdown signaled the government was willing to risk another confrontation with the Red Shirts, who are mostly rural supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They are campaigning to oust Abhisit, dissolve Parliament and hold new elections.

But it only served to anger the Red Shirts, who immediately declared a "war" on the government.

"From now on our mission is to hunt down Abhisit. ... This is a war between the government and the Red Shirts," Arisman, a charismatic pop singer-turned-activist, told supporters after his escape.

Arisman, one of the more radical protest leaders, is wanted by police for leading an invasion of Parliament by scores of supporters on April 7 that forced lawmakers to scale a back wall to escape. VIPs were evacuated by helicopter. He had also led the storming of a Southeast Asian summit last year in the beach resort of Pattaya that forced the conference to be canceled.

On Friday, Arisman was lowered by rope from a third-story balcony at the hotel — owned by Thaksin's family — into a waiting crowd of cheering Red Shirt supporters, as outnumbered police looked on.

Arisman then announced that the Red Shirts had seized two police officers — a colonel and a major general — as hostages to ensure his safety.

"I would like to thank all of the people who saved me — you have helped save democracy," Arisman said.

A second Red Shirt leader was seen climbing out of a hotel window and down a tree. It was not immediately clear if he escaped.

New elections demanded
They accuse the country's traditional ruling elite — represented by Abhisit and his allies — of orchestrating Thaksin's ouster in a 2006 military coup on corruption allegations. Thaksin is living in overseas exile to avoid a two-year prison term.

The protesters occupied two areas, one of which troops tried to clear last Saturday, leading to clashes that left 24 people dead and more than 800 injured in the worst political violence in nearly two decades.

The Red Shirts withdrew from that area Thursday and consolidated their forces at their second encampment in Bangkok's main upscale shopping and hotel district.

Earlier Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban announced on television that a crackdown was being launched on the Red Shirts. He accused "terrorist elements" of infiltrating the protesters to orchestrate Saturday's violence.

"The terrorists within the demonstrators used war weapons," Suthep said.

"I would like to ask innocent protesters to leave the demonstration area, in order to avoid being used as human shields," Suthep said. "The government from now on would like to carry out decisive legal measures against the Red Shirt leaders."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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