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Protesters mass to try to force out Thai PM

Written by: Staff

BANGKOK, Mar 5 (Reuters) Thousands of protesters vowed today to stay on Bangkok's streets until Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra resigned over allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

Buddhist monks of the ''Dharma Army'', the ''Army of Buddha's Teachings,'' were in the 40,000-strong crowd. There were shouts of ''Thaksin Get Out!'' as protesters waved anti-government banners in Sanam Luang square near the glittering Grand Palace.

''The prime minister is corrupt. Everyone in his government should resign,'' Lakhana Promchokewattana, 27, a businesswoman from the central province of Ratchaburi, told Reuters.

The rally, led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), is the latest in a series of protests mainly by Bangkok's middle class outraged at the tax-free sale of Thaksin's business empire in late January.

The Thai leader has refused to bow to ''mob rule'' and sought to defuse the campaign by calling a snap election for April 2.

PAD organisers said they would march to the nearby Democracy Monument, the focal point of bloody protests in the 1970s and 1990s that brought down past military governments.

''We will stay there until he quits,'' friend-turned-foe media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul told reporters.

Thaksin's former political mentor, retired general Chamlong Srimuang, who led a successful but bloody ''people's power'' revolt against a military-led government in 1992, said his ''Dharma Army'' would also camp there.

''We have not decided whether we will move anywhere else. It depends on the majority,'' Chamlong, clad in shorts and sandals commonly worn by farmers, told reporters.

Police, backed up by a 100-strong riot squad, feared the crowd could move on Government House or Thaksin's residence.

THAKSIN DEFIANT The PAD has called the election a sham and the three main opposition parties are boycotting the vote, which Thaksin is expected to win with strong support from the countryside.

''Hitler-Shin'' - Reincarnated to rob the country,'' one poster said, depicting him as Adolf Hitler in a Nazi uniform and with a small toothbrush moustache.

The anti-Thaksin campaign took off after his relatives sold their stake in Shin Corp, the telecommunications empire he founded, to a Singapore state firm for a tax-free 1.9 billion dollars.

Thaksin has counter-attacked with his own rallies, the biggest at Sanam Luang on Friday where 150,000 supporters, mainly from the countryside, urged him to fight on.

Thaksin told a rally on Sunday in the rural northeast he would press ahead with the election and pledged more funds to tackle rural poverty.

''Every time there is a conflict like this, the prime minister always retreated,'' he told some 20,000 supporters.

''But today, this prime minister will not give in because it will set a bad precedent by letting mob rule prevail.'' REUTERS CH KP2051

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