Thai anti-government leaders elude capture

In a new setback to the Thai government’s efforts to ease mounting political tensions, protest leaders escaped from their hotel Friday after security forces arrived to arrest them.

One, Arisman Pongruangrong, climbed down three floors using a rope, and was rushed away by supporters thronging the building.

The police say Arisman led recent rallies at the national parliament, the election commission and satellite transmission bases.

Officials earlier Friday said the government is preparing to arrest people linked to violent clashes with security forces last Saturday.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, Thai security chief, announced the raid on the hotel as it was unfolding, saying that a Special Forces unit had closed in around a downtown Bangkok hotel.

“As I am speaking, the government’s special team is surrounding the SC Park Hotel, where we have learned that there are terrorists and some of their leaders hiding,” Suthep said.

A spokesman for the governing Democrat Party, Baranuj Smuthararaks, says arrest warrants have been issued for those suspected of being involved in the violence. Some of the suspects have been identified from photos taken during the clashes.

“Right now the government’s focusing on issuing warrants for acts of terrorism by the people who fortunately have been captured in action [in photos] by both the local and international media,” he said.

According to the New York Times, as many as five protest leaders had been staying at the same hotel as Pongruangrong. Those leaders later appeared together at a protest rally in Bangkok.

“I would like to thank all of the people who saved me,” Arisman said. “You have saved democracy.” The government says armed men infiltrated protester ranks Saturday and fired on troops trying to disperse a rally. Five soldiers and 19 protesters died during the clashes.

Thailand is facing its most severe political crisis in almost 20 years. The anti-government movement, led by the United Democratic Front against Dictatorship or UDD, demands that the government step down and call fresh elections.

UDD supporters, known as red shirts, have held protests in Bangkok for more than a month.

The UDD largely supports former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and remains overseas to avoid a jail sentence for corruption. Mr. Thaksin has strong support among the rural and urban poor, as well among some sections of the army and police.

Some parties in the governing coalition want to set a clear time frame for elections to ease tensions. But the government says it will only call elections once the political situation has cooled.

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