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Thai protesters block roads in bid to shut capital

By By THANYARAT DOKSONE and TODD PITMAN

BANGKOK (AP) — Anti-government protesters aiming to shut down central Bangkok took over key intersections Monday, halting much of the traffic into the Thai capital's main business district as part of a months-long campaign to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister.

The intensified protests, which could last weeks or more, were peaceful and even festive, as people sporting "Shutdown Bangkok" T-shirts blew whistles, waved Thai flags of various sizes and spread out picnic mats to eat on the pavement.

Still, the protests raise the stakes in a long-running crisis that has killed at least eight people in the last two months and fueled fears of more bloodshed to come and a possible army coup. The army commander has said he doesn't want to be drawn into the conflict, which broadly pits the urban middle and upper class opponents of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra against her supporters in the poorer countryside.

Overnight, an unidentified gunman opened fire on protesters camped near a vast government complex, shooting one man in the neck who was admitted to a nearby hospital, according to the city's emergency medical services. The drive-by was the third of its kind since Jan. 6.

In a separate incident early Monday, a gunman fired about 10 shots at the headquarters of the opposition Democrat Party, shattering several windows but causing no casualties, said Police Maj. Nartnarit Rattanaburi.

The protesters are demanding that Yingluck's administration be replaced by a non-elected "people's council" which would implement reforms they say are needed to end corruption and money politics. The main opposition party has boycotted Feb. 2 elections that Yingluck has called in a bid to ease tension — and which she would almost certainly win.

Critics have lashed out at the moves as a power struggle aimed at bringing the Southeast Asian nation's fragile democracy to a halt. Candlelight vigils have been held to counter the shutdown and urge the election be held.

The real target of the protesters' wrath is Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields considerable sway over Thai politics. They accuse Yingluck of being Thaksin's puppet, but the rural poor like him for the populist policies he implemented, including virtually free health care.

"I'm here to get rid of Thaksin and his cronies," said Darunee Suredechakul, a 49-year-old Bangkok native and resort owner who is staying in a hotel so that she and her daughter can join the protests. "The government has to go. Reforms must be carried out. This is mainly because we don't want to see the same old corrupted politicians returning to power over and over again."

While she acknowledged the street blockades must be creating some headaches for people, "Bangkok residents must be patient until we move past this point so that our children will have to suffer like we do. Trust me. It's worth it."

In a speech late Sunday, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban repeated a vow that neither he nor his supporters will negotiate an end to the crisis.

"In this fight, defeat is defeat and victory is victory. There is no tie," he said. "The masses from all walks of life have woken up. They're aware that we are the owners of Thailand."

Protesters have said they plan to surround Cabinet ministries to prevent them from functioning, and threatened to cut water and electricity to the private residences of Yingluck and her Cabinet.

Most Thai and international schools in Bangkok were closed Monday, as were some major shopping malls. Many residents appeared to stay home, and traffic was light across much of the city.

The protests centered on seven major intersections, where demonstrators cut roads with walls of sandbags or vans and organized lively sit-ins on mats beneath stages equipped with speaker systems.

At one crossroads in the heart of the capital's financial district, huge Thai flags hung from an overhead walkway, and protesters wearing bandanas and sunglasses forced drivers to turn their cars around. Police, keen to avert violence, made no effort to stop them.

Enterprising residents set up makeshift booths to sell drinks, skewers of chicken and bowls of noodles, while others hawked whistles, caps and T-shirts.

But van operator Wanida Jantawong complained that she was getting only a fourth of her normal business due to the shutdown.

"There's one lane that remained open for our vans to run, but there are no customers," she said.

Protest leaders have said they will maintain the shutdown for weeks, or until they obtain their goal. It remains to be seen what kind of impact that would have on the city's economy, tourism and foreign investment.

Since Yingluck assumed the premiership after 2011 elections, she has walked a careful tightrope with the army and her opponents that succeeded in maintaining political calm. The trigger for the latest protests was an ill-advised move late last year by ruling party lawmakers to push through a bill under the guise of a reconciliation measure offering a legal amnesty for political offenders. The last-minute inclusion of Thaksin led to public outrage and the bill was voted down.

Since then, demonstrators have steadily escalated pressure on Yingluck, attacking her office at government house and the city's police headquarters for several days in December with slingshots and homemade rocket launchers.

There are fears the protesters are trying to incite violence to prompt the military to intervene, and Yingluck has dealt softly with demonstrators in a bid to keep the situation calm.

The powerful army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly said he wants to stay out of the conflict; but in a sign of apparent impatience late last month, he refused to rule out the possibility of a military takeover.

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Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Jinda Wedel contributed to this report.

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