Police fear protesters are too strong after red-shirt leader's escape act

Thai authorities braced for coup after opposition supporters thwart arrest

In another humiliating setback for the Thai government the portly opposition leader, Arisman Pongruengrong, escaped on the end of a rope into the arms of cheering supporters after security forces raided his hotel yesterday.

Mr Pongruengrong, his symbolic opposition red shirt straining with the effort, was winched showly from a third-floor balcony of the SC Park hotel in Bangkok into the welcoming arms of his supporters. A Thai television news programme later juxtaposed footage of the plump Mr Arismun's rope-trick with images of Tom Cruise hanging from a wire in Mission Impossible.

After Bangkok's deadliest political violence in 18 years, there is no sign of an end to the confrontation between the opposition and the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The authorities were trying to arrest three protest leaders whom the government blames for the riots last weekend that left 24 people dead and more than 800 injured. Officers had to push through hundreds of red-shirted protesters as they tried to raid the hotel in the Wangthonglang district of the city, but in the end opposition supporters managed to detain two members of the security forces instead. Both were taken to the epicentre of last week's demonstrations, then released. After the bungled raid, MrAbhisit went on television to announce that his deputy prime minister, who launched the raid, was being replaced as head of national security by his army chief.

This part of town, which includes some of Bangkok's prime real estate, is run by the red shirts now. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters are flooding back into the Thai capital after visiting their farms and villages for the Songkran New Year holiday. Many of them wave red feet-shaped or heart-shaped clappers, while Liverpool FC jerseys are popular in the crowds. The club is well-supported in Thailand, but their shirt colour is even more so.

The hero of the red-shirted hordes, Mr Pongruengrong, later emerged from a truck in Bangkok's most upmarket shopping precinct to rapturous applause. Behind him was the banner "Welcome to Thailand. We just want democracy".

People are fearful of a repeat of last week's clashes between the opposition, formally called the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, and the security forces, who are supporting the Prime Minister. But rumour swirling through this city of 15 million suggests that patience with the authorities is wearing thin. Conspiratorial voices say a coup may be in the offing.

The message that the opposition is trying to communicate is clear. Protests in recent years have foundered on the close relationship between the red shirts and Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Now they are trying to prove that the revolt is about more than Mr Thaksin. It is a democratic issue.

Mr Abhisit was appointed Prime Minister after much parliamentary wrangling, but the red shirts want a vote to confirm or reject his mandate. Mr Abhisit's Democratic Party has not won an election for many years, and is unlikely to prevail over supporters of Mr Thaksin in any fresh elections.

No one has seen Mr Abhisit in four days and it is hard to imagine how he can continue to rule under this kind of pressure. He blames "terrorists" among the red-shirts for the violence at the weekend, but it is still not entirely clear what happened. The opposition have been broadcasting a series of speeches by their leaders calling for Mr Abhisit to resign. Hundreds of pick-up trucks ferry more and more red-shirts to the city centre, threatening more weekend disturbances in a capital city that is getting weary of disruption.

Many ordinary Thais have worries closer to home. The unrest is devastating the economy, especially the tourist industry, which accounts for 6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). Three million Thais rely on tourism for a living, and the political unrest is expected to shave up to 2 per cent off GDP growth this year.