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At least 40,000 at mass protest in Bangkok

TENS of thousands of protesters demonstrated today outside the home of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's top adviser, accusing him of orchestrating the 2006 coup that toppled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

All dressed in red, the massive crowd clapped and cheered as protest leaders called for the resignation of Prem Tinsulanonda, an 88-year-old privy councilor who was holed up in his home. Soldiers stood guard inside the compound and several rows of riot police blocked the street with barbed wire barricades.

At least 40,000 people had turned out for the sprawling protest by late afternoon, said Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuaksuban. Rally organizers said the crowd size was 200,000.

The protest is the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's four-month-old government, which became the fourth administration since the coup in a long-running political crisis that revolves around Thaksin. The protesters say Thaksin was wrongfully ousted and Abhisit - who was appointed by Parliament in December - took power illegitimately and should step aside so Parliament can be dissolved ahead of fresh elections.

"Brothers and sisters, come out. If you love democracy, come out! If you want an end to elite rule, come out!" protest leaders aboard trucks shouted through megaphones. "Abhisit, get out! Prem, get out!"

Protesters have accused the country's elite - the military, judiciary and Prem's inner circle - of interfering in politics.

Prem has denied the accusations, but the rare public criticism of a king's privy councilor broke a taboo in Thailand, where members of the monarchy and their aides are highly revered. Prem was indirectly accused of orchestrating the 2006 coup before; the last rally outside his home in July 2007 turned into a riot in which more than 200 people were injured.

More than 4,000 police were deployed in the area, where protest leaders vowed to camp for three days. Army reinforcements were on standby and authorities have urged the general public to avoid the area.

Today's rally came after a two-week sit-in outside Abhisit's office, which at it's peak drew 30,000 protesters.

Abhisit rejected the demands for his resignation and said he planned to carry on with his day as usual.

"The government will not dissolve Parliament," Abhisit told reporters after launching an anti-drunk driving campaign ahead of the Thai New Year holiday next week. "We will only do so if it is an appropriate solution. We will not respond to threats of violence."

Abhisit has repeatedly expressed concerns about violence at the rally, but said authorities will allow the rally if it remains orderly.

"If it becomes a riot, the government will have to do something," Abhisit said in an interview with Channel 3 television.

"I can assure you there will no violence starting from the government's side," Abhisit said. "There are some people who want chaos, but the government will do everything to restrain them."

On the eve of the rally, a car carrying Abhisit was attacked by protesters, but he escaped unharmed. The Tuesday attack occurred as Abhisit left a Cabinet meeting in the coastal resort of Pattaya, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of Bangkok, where Asian leaders will gather Friday for a summit.

Thaksin, who was ousted amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power, has been addressing the protests via video link from exile. He fled the country last year before a court convicted him of abuse of power and sentenced him to two years in prison.

"This will be a historic day!" Thaksin told his supporters Tuesday evening, his image on a giant screen outside Government House. "I want to urge my Thai brothers and sisters who love freedom and justice ... to gather in large numbers and show your power."

Most of Thaksin's supporters are from the country's poor rural majority, who benefited from his populist policies. They are known as "the red shirts," for their favored attire.

The protests are the latest episode in Thailand's long-running political turmoil, a tug-of-war between Thaksin's supporters and opponents.

Last year was dominated by protests from Thaksin's opponents, who wore yellow shirts. They occupied the Government House for three months and shutdown Bangkok's two airports for a week. Their protests ended in December after courts removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers from office, paving the way for Abhisit to take power in Parliament in December.

The revival of protests comes as the country grapples with its worst economic downturn since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Thailand's economy, the second-largest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, is expected to contract 2.5 percent this year, as global demand for its crucial export sector dries up.


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