Bangkok protesters challenge PM
Anti-government protesters calling for Thailand's prime minister to step down launched a rally in Bangkok that authorities feared would grow into the biggest demonstration the country has seen since she took office last year.
The rally, which was expected to draw tens of thousands of protesters, was mostly peaceful in its early stages.
Police, however, fired tear gas to disperse between 50 to 100 people who tried to break through a line of concrete barricades erected on a street near the protest site.
Earlier in the week premier Yingluck Shinawatra ordered nearly 17,000 police to deploy and invoked a special security law, citing concerns that the rally could turn violent. She also accused demonstrators of seeking to overthrow her elected government.
The demonstration underscores the still-simmering political divisions that have split the country since the army toppled Ms Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 military coup.
The protest was organised by a royalist group calling itself Pitak Siam - Protect Thailand. Led by retired army general Boonlert Kaewprasit, the group accuses Ms Yingluck's administration of corruption, ignoring insults to the revered monarchy and being a puppet of her brother.
Addressing several thousand protesters on the rally's central stage, Mr Boonlert vowed the demonstration would remain peaceful. But he said: "I promise that Pitak Siam will succeed in driving this government out." He then led the crowd in a chant: "Yingluck, get out! Yingluck, get out!"
The rally was being held at Bangkok's Royal Plaza, a public space near parliament that has been used by protesters in the past. Police allowed protesters into the site, and two roads leading to it were open. But in an effort to control access, security forces erected concrete barriers on another road leading to Royal Plaza. When between 50 to 100 protesters tried to break through one of the barriers, a contingent of around 500 police fired tear gas and beat them back with batons.
While Pitak Siam is a newcomer to Thailand's protest scene, it is linked to the well-known Yellow Shirt protesters, whose rallies led to Mr Thaksin's overthrow. The same movement later toppled a Thaksin-allied elected government after occupying and shutting down Bangkok's two airports for a week in 2008. Mr Thaksin remains a divisive figure in Thai politics. The Yellow Shirts and their allies say he is corrupt and accuse him of seeking to undermine the popular constitutional monarch - claimss he denies.
Ms Yingluck was taking Saturday's rally seriously - her cabinet invoked the Internal Security Act on Thursday in three Bangkok districts around the protest site and she later addressed the nation to explain the move, citing concerns of violence. The security act allows authorities to close roads, impose curfews and ban use of electronic devices in designated areas. Measures began taking effect on Thursday night, with police closing roads around Ms Yingluck's office, the Government House, and placing extra security at the homes of senior officials, including the prime minister.