BANGKOK, Thailand: Dozens of masked, anti-government protesters armed with knives, guns and golf clubs stormed a TV station and briefly shut it down Tuesday, while tens of thousands peacefully laid siege to government ministries.
The massive protests sparked rumors of another coup only eight months after a democratically elected returned to power, and the country's stock market was down 1.7 percent by mid-morning. However, top military officials assured the public they would not launch a coup, as they did in response to large anti-government protests in 2006.
Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy stormed the government-controlled National Broadcasting Services of Thailand or NBT studios in the Thai capital early Tuesday, forcing it to shut down for a few hours before police arrested as many as 80 protesters for trespassing, the broadcaster said.
A second group of several hundred protesters broke through police lines two hours later, rampaging through the NBT offices. They remained inside the television station at midday, forcing the station to broadcast from mobile locations.
Outside the office, several thousand more activists some waving Thai flags and many wearing yellow shirts honoring the monarchy peacefully listened to speeches criticizing the government.
As many as 30,000 more PAD supporters were peacefully protesting outside the gates of four government ministries and the main Government House, preventing employees from entering, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter.
Protest leaders claimed several hundred thousand people were on the streets of Bangkok.
"We are now controlling most of the key government offices to prevent them from coming to work," said Sondhi Limthongkul, a co-leader of the Alliance. "Today, we declare a long, long holiday for the government."
Outside of Bangkok, protesters said they had blocked three main highways leading into the capital.
The protests were the latest effort by the Alliance to force Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's government from office. The Alliance contends Samak is a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the 2006 coup and has sought self-imposed exile in England.
Protesters accuse Samak of trying to amend the constitution to help Thaksin avert a string of corruption charges against him. They also accuse the government of failing to aggressively prosecute cases against Thaksin and refusing calls to extradite him to face justice.
Samak, whose party won national elections last December, has refused to step aside and insisted as late as Monday that the protests would not impact Tuesday's weekly Cabinet meeting.
But by Tuesday morning, the government said it was moving the meeting from Government House to the military headquarters to avoid protesters, deputy government spokesman Natawut Saikau said.
Boonsrang Niempradit, ceremonial armed forces chief, played down the demonstrations and dismissed suggestions that the military would take action.
"I think police are still able to control the situation so there is no need to send the soldiers out to stop the protesters," Boonsrang said.
Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the country's powerful army chief, reassured the public that the military would not stage a coup, adding that the latest crisis can be solved politically.
Anti-government protesters since May have disrupted traffic in the capital demanding that Samak and his Cabinet resign. While boisterous and sometimes an annoyance for motorists, the protests have rarely turned violent and have never grown to the level they were in 2006 when Thaksin was ousted.
People's Alliance for Democracy leaders have vowed to continue agitating until Samak steps down.