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Thai antigovernment protesters clash with police

Riot police ringed an area in Bangkok where antigovernment protesters rallied Saturday.

REUTERS

Riot police ringed an area in Bangkok where antigovernment protesters rallied Saturday.

BANGKOK — Protesters calling for Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to step down rallied in Bangkok on Saturday, clashing with police in the first major demonstration against the government since it came to power last year.

Organizers had spoken of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of supporters. But only around 10,000 turned up, and by dusk the leaders called the rally off.

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Nevertheless, the tense gathering served as a reminder that the simmering political divisions unleashed after the nation’s 2006 army coup have not gone away. The coup toppled Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, triggering years of instability and mass-protests that have shaken Bangkok.

Saturday’s rally was organized by a royalist group calling itself ‘‘Pitak Siam’’ — or ‘‘Protect Thailand.’’ Led by retired army General Boonlert Kaewprasit, the group accuses Yingluck’s administration of corruption, ignoring insults to the monarchy, and being a puppet of Thaksin.

Yingluck took the group’s threats seriously and accused them of trying to topple her government, which came to power in mid-2011 after winning a landslide electoral victory. Concerned about possible violence, Yingluck deployed nearly 17,000 police and invoked a special security law to give them extra powers.

Although the rally site itself was peaceful, protesters on a nearby street tried to break through a concrete barricade guarded by hundreds of riot police . Both demonstrators and police hurled tear gas canisters at each other.

Major General Piya Utayo, a police spokesman, said five officers were injured. He said 130 demonstrators were detained, some carrying knives and bullets. Local hospital staff said they treated 45 people and most had inhaled tear gas.

Speaking from the rally’s central stage, Boonlert vowed the demonstration would remain peaceful. But he said: ‘‘I promise that ­Pitak Siam will succeed in driving this government out.’’

Police allowed protesters into Royal Plaza, and two roads leading to it were open. But in an ­effort to control access, they blocked roads on another street leading to Royal Plaza.

While Pitak Siam is a newcomer to Thailand’s protest scene, it is linked to the ‘‘Yellow Shirt’’ protesters, whose rallies led to Thaksin’s overthrow.

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