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Exiled former Thai PM granted Nicaragua passport

THAILAND'S fugitive former leader Thaksin Shinawatra now has a Nicaraguan passport, complicating efforts to extradite him, as Thai authorities pressed ahead today with a search for his supporters accused of leading violent riots in Bangkok.

The Nicaraguan government announced late Wednesday it had named Thaksin a "Nicaraguan ambassador on a special mission" to bring investment to the Central American country and issued him a passport in January.

The announcement came just hours after the Thai government said it had revoked Thaksin's personal passport, accusing him of stoking the unrest that paralyzed the Thai capital earlier this week.

Ousted in a 2006 military coup, Thaksin has been on the run since fleeing Thailand ahead of a corruption conviction last year. He has been spotted in Central America, Africa, London, Dubai and Hong Kong, among other places. He recently said that several countries had offered him passports but did not specify them.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat said he could not confirm Thaksin's Nicaraguan passport but said authorities were trying to "make clear which other passports he is holding." He said he was not aware of any extradition treaty between Thailand and Nicaragua.

Thailand had already revoked Thaksin's diplomatic passport.

A state of emergency in Bangkok remained in place for a fifth day Thursday, but normalcy returned after the rioting earlier this week, when Thaksin's supporters clashed with soldiers and burned empty buses at major intersections.

Two people were killed and 123 injured in the violence.

Police were still searching for dozens of protest leaders, only three of whom were in custody. Bangkok's Criminal Court extended their detention Thursday for another seven days.

Thirteen arrest warrants were issued Tuesday against suspected leaders of the Bangkok unrest, including one for Thaksin who addressed supporters regularly via video link and at one point called for a "revolution." The warrants were issued for inciting the public to break the law and causing a public disturbance, which carry prison terms of seven years and two years, respectively.

An additional 36 warrants were subsequently issued for protesters allegedly behind two attacks on vehicles carrying Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the storming of a weekend summit of Asian leaders in the seaside town of Pattaya. The break-in prompted Abhisit to abruptly cancel the summit and evacuate leaders by helicopter.

Bringing the protests to an end and rounding up the leaders may prove to be the easy part. The harder task will be to restore the country's battered image abroad and heal internal divisions - which largely revolve around Thaksin.

The protests were the latest in a long-simmering conflict - triggered by Thaksin's ouster - that has divided many Thais into two groups.

Thaksin's "red shirts" are drawn largely from the impoverished countryside where his populist policies have broad support. On the other side are the "yellow shirts," a mix of the ruling elite royalists, academics, professionals and retired military who say the poor are not educated enough to vote responsibly.

Following the coup, Thaksin's allies were returned to power in elections, setting off prolonged demonstrations by the yellow shirts that culminated in the weeklong occupation of Bangkok's airports late last year.

Those protests ended after court rulings removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers from office, paving the way for Abhisit's rise to power, but setting off the rival - and most recent - demonstrations.

Unlike the firm crackdown by the military this week on the red shirts, security forces last year did not act against the yellow shirts. Leaders of the yellow shirts were freed from police custody on bail just hours after turning themselves in on criminal charges in March.


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