Dwindling Thai protesters bid to widen movement

BANGKOK: Thailand's red-shirted rural underclass on Thursday threatened a new wave of crippling protests as it vied to rally Bangkok's middle classes behind its ebbing campaign to topple the government.

The supporters of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have failed to bring down current premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, despite headline-grabbing blood protests and a rolling rally that reached a peak of 100,000 on Sunday.

Police said just 12,000 "Red Shirts" remained at their main rally site in Bangkok's government quarter on Thursday, with many returning to their homes in the kingdom's provinces after spending up to six days in the capital.

But protest leaders remained defiant, calling on urban middle classes to join the fight of the largely poor and rural group, who mainly hail from northern areas of Thailand.

"I ask workers and government employees who feel injustice to join us," said Suporn Atthawong, a senior protester from the Reds' northeast heartland.

"Rural grassroots people join hands with the middle class to drive Abhisit from his post," he told the crowds.

In recent developments Thailand's prime minister has said he is open to negotiations with the protesters who have massed in the capital to demand that he step down.

"If the demonstration is still within the law the government does not object to holding negotiations (with protesters)," premier Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a nationally televised conference.

"The government is open for participation," he added, without giving further details of the format the talks could take, two days after making a similar offer.

Red shirty protest leader Nattawut Saikur said the demonstration, which has been overseen by a massive contingent of security forces, would on Saturday "spread out on every road across Bangkok to appeal to more people to join us".

The ploy appeared designed to bring the teeming capital to a halt and force Abhisit to resign and call early elections.

The Red Shirts have since Tuesday tried shock tactics, pressing their demands by collecting hundreds of litres of their own blood, some of which was poured at Abhisit's office gates and residence.

Government reaction to the bloody spectacles has been muted, but a minister attached to the premier's office, Satit Wongnhongtaey, on Wednesday said it was "uncivilised" and had left Abhisit "speechless".

The protesters claim the government is elitist and illegitimate. Abhisit came to power via a December 2008 parliamentary vote, after a controversial court ruling ousted Thaksin's allies.

The Reds are largely followers of Thaksin, a billionaire telecoms tycoon who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for corruption, staunchly supporting the populist policies he introduced before he was ousted in a 2006 coup. Related article: Key dates in Thaksin saga

Thaksin himself, who has spoken to the crowd via video link each night, has been in Montenegro since Saturday and has taken citizenship of the European Balkan state, Montenegrin police said Wednesday.

Rally organisers planned a day of rest and meetings for most of Thursday, followed by an evening of music and dancing -- apparently designed to keep spirits and numbers up.

But doubts about their chances of winning are intensifying.

"Though the Red Shirts have succeeded in calling attention to their agenda, the major societal forces of Thailand appear stacked against them," said Paul Chambers, a Thailand specialist at Heidelberg University in Germany.

"This includes the monarchy, soldiers in top positions, courts, the ruling coalition, and most business groups."

The protesters still paralysed streets on Wednesday as they fanned across Bangkok, crowding outside the US and British embassies to denounce alleged interference against Thaksin. Related article: Thai protesters picket US embassy

On Thursday Abhisit was back at the military barracks in Bangkok's northern outskirts where he has mainly been based during the rally.

The Red Shirt crowds surrounded the barracks for a few hours on Monday but Abhisit rejected their demand to dissolve parliament, saying he must think of the whole country's interests and not only those of the Reds.