Thailand deploys 50,000-strong force ahead of protests

BANGKOK: Thai authorities Thursday began deploying 50,000 troops on the streets of Bangkok ahead of rallies by anti-government protesters that they fear could turn violent, the deputy prime minister said.

The demonstrations by the so-called "Red Shirts", who support fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, begins Friday -- two weeks after the kingdom's top court confiscated 1.4 billion dollars of the tycoon's assets.

Deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who is overseeing the security operation, said "full deployment" began Thursday of 30,000 soldiers, 10,000 police and 10,000 civilian volunteer forces.

"If protesters intrude into army bases or police stations, the government will use armed force to crack down immediately, as we consider them terrorists," he told reporters.

The government has invoked a tough internal security act that allows it to call out troops, impose curfews and ban gatherings.

Checkpoints are being set up in and around Bangkok to search protesters for weapons as they arrive from the provinces, mainly their strongholds in the rural north.

The Reds, who resent what they see as an elitist and undemocratic government, say they expect up to 600,000 people to attend the main rally on Sunday but insist it will be peaceful.

The government estimates that nearer 100,000 will turn up.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned Wednesday there could be "sabotage", while Thailand's main airport, which was besieged by protesters in 2008, said Wednesday it had made contingency plans for the rallies.

The Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) said it too had prepared measures to ensure that trading was not affected between March 12 and 15.

Thaksin, who made his fortune in telecommunications, has been egging on his supporters via text message, videolink and his Twitter page from his self-imposed exile in Dubai, where he is living to avoid a jail term for graft.

The Reds have held a string of protests since another court decision removed Thaksin's allies from government and brought Abhisit to power in December 2008, after a blockade of Bangkok's airports by rival, royalist "Yellow Shirts".