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Thousands of Thai "red shirts" demand prisoner release
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of Thai anti-government activists gathered in Bangkok on Sunday to demand the release of protesters detained for their role in crippling demonstrations and bloody clashes with the military.
Groups of "red shirts" marched from the Ratchaprasong intersection to Democracy Monument, sites where a combined 91 people were killed and almost 2,000 wounded in April and May clashes and rioting that marked the country's worst political violence in modern history.
It was their second big gathering since Sept. 19, when at least 10,000 massed and was sign of a revival of a powerful movement that could hamper efforts to bring an end to a paralysing five-year political crisis in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.
The gatherings took place in several sites amid a state of emergency that has allowed the detention of an estimated 175 people for their role in the crippling protests, clashes and rioting. Among those detained are about 20 red shirt leaders.
The show of defiance and concerns about a regrouping of the red shirts is one of the biggest political risks facing investors, who continue to tap into Thailand's financial markets, with foreign inflows pushing the baht currency to a 13-year high.
Sunday's rallies took place without violence and appeared to have no clear leadership, with no stage or megaphones, which are banned under the security laws. Riot police surrounded the site in Bangkok's old quarter as the crowd swelled to at least 7,000 people, according to a police estimate.
Protesters distributed pictures and VCDs of the deadly clashes with troops and hung red ribbons on trees. They planned to light 20,000 candles in memory of those who died during the 10-week Bangkok demonstrations.
Thailand's political crisis broadly pits the mostly urban and rural working-class red shirts against establishment elite royalists and the military, which back the current Democrat-led government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The protesters, many of which support the twice-elected former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, say democracy and the judiciary has been undermined by their powerful opponents and have demanded immediate elections, which Abhisit is refusing to call until peace is restored.
Bangkok and its surrounds have been hit by 16 mostly minor bombings since the protests ended on May 19 but a powerful blast in a city suburb on Tuesday, which killed four and wounded nine, has raised fears about a possible violent backlash by anti-government radicals.
Police and the government believe a known red shirt activist killed on Tuesday may have been a bomb-maker who accidently triggered the blast. Large amounts of explosives and bomb-making components were found in the apartment rented by the man several weeks ago.
Analysts say the crisis could escalate if the opposition Puea Thai Party, which is backed by the coup-ousted Thaksin, wins most seats in the next election and displaces the military-backed Democrats, who enjoy support from Thailand's middle-classes who despise Thaksin.
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