Thousands of royalist protesters stormed the compound of Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a TV station and several ministeries today in a coordinated bid to unseat his elected seven-month-old coalition government.
Samak urged the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to pack up and go home, saying his patience was running out after three months of hitherto peaceful demonstrations in central Bangkok.
His interior minister would take direct control of the police to restore order, Samak told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting that was moved to a military compound in northern Bangkok because of protesters blockading his Government House offices.
"There is no way that a country of 63 million, like Thailand, will let a group of five people form a street gang to seize control," Samak said of the PAD, which accuses him of being an illegitimate proxy of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
"I won't yield. My cabinet won't yield. The military and the police won't yield," he said.
He made no mention of any need to impose emergency rule, although a police spokesman later said the protesters had until 6 p.m. (1100 GMT) to leave or face unspecified "action".
The stock market fell as much as 2.5 percent amid fears of violence. It has shed more nearly 23 percent since the PAD, a group of monarchist businessmen and academics, launched its campaign to unseat the government on May 25.
The baht eased to around 34.25 against the dollar, its weakest since November, from a 34.09 close on Monday.
As Samak spoke, PAD leader Sonthi Limthongkul was addressing several thousand supporters from the Government House lawn, saying he would not leave until the government fell.
"I won't leave until there is a political change. If you want me to leave, you will have to kill me and take my body out of here," he said to thunderous applause from demonstrators waving Thai flags and yellow banners representing the monarchy.
Earlier, journalists at state broadcaster NBT abandoned their studio after thousands of PAD protesters stormed the building.
The PAD also occupied parts of the ministries of finance, agriculture and transport, as well as briefly the Bangkok police headquarters, triggering rumours about a military coup to restore order less than two years after the army removed Thaksin.
No coup, says army chief
The army denied the speculation, saying the police could handle the situation.
"The army will not launch a coup. The people can be assured," army head Anupong Paochinda told Channel 3 television. "This is the police's job."
The latest disruption to the government at a time of stuttering growth and decade-high inflation was the last thing the economy needed, analysts said.
"This government is in office, but not in power," said Nick Bibby of Barclays Capital in Singapore. "We need to have greater clarity that this government is going to be around next year."
Although the possibility remains of a violent response by Samak, who was instrumental in a bloody military crackdown on left-wing students in 1976, analysts said that if he keeps his cool he may yet bore the PAD into submission.
"As long as the government is restrained in its response, sticking to the law, not overreacting, and shying away from physical, violent enforcement of the law, it has the upper hand," Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University said.
Earlier, police arrested 80 PAD activists armed with pistols, golf clubs and knives after they burst into NBT studios as part of a prelude to the wider protests organised by the PAD.
When thousands of PAD supporters massed, police stood aside.
"They shouted 'Get out, get out' at us repeatedly. All 150 of us were rounded up for a short while before police arrived and talked them down to the ground floor," newscaster Soifah Osukonthip said on air.Reuse content