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Protest leader targets police HQ

A firebrand opposition leader has vowed to escalate his campaign to topple Thailand's government and ordered his followers to storm Bangkok's police headquarters after they fought all day with riot police protecting heavily barricaded key buildings.

It came after prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra said she was willing to do anything to end the violent protests, but made it clear she could not accept the opposition's demand to hand power to an unelected council.

Ms Yingluck was elected with an overwhelming majority in 2011 and many observers see the protesters' demand as unreasonable.

"Right now we don't see any way to resolve the problem under the constitution," she said in the 12-minute news conference televised live.

Her comments highlighted the unusual political deadlock Thailand finds itself in with no clear solution in sight. The stand-off intensified as protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban gave a defiant speech to thousands of cheering supporters at a government complex they seized last week when the anti-government demonstrations started.

The protests have renewed fears of prolonged instability in south-east Asia's second-biggest economy and comes just ahead of the peak holiday tourist season.

Even if Ms Yingluck dissolves parliament and calls fresh elections, Mr Suthep said, he will "continue the fight ... because they can always come back to suck the blood of people, steal from people, disrespect the constitution and make us their slaves".

"If people are happy with elections and go home, I will remain here alone," he said.

Earlier today, protesters commandeered waste trucks and bulldozers and tried to ram concrete barriers at Government House and other key offices. Police repelled them by firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, as protesters shot back explosives from homemade rocket launchers.

At least three people have been killed and more than 200 injured in the past three days of violence, which capped a week of massive street rallies that drew crowds of more than 100,000 at their peak. A Bangkok hospital confirmed that two of the people they treated today suffered gunshot wounds, but it is not clear who shot them. The police said they have not used live rounds.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon is "concerned" about the situation in Thailand and urges all sides to exercise "utmost restraint", his spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

The protesters, who are mostly middle-class Bangkok supporters of the opposition Democrat Party, accuse Ms Yingluck of being a proxy for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was deposed in a 2006 military coup but remains central to Thailand's political crisis and is a focal point for the protester's anger.

The protesters say their goal is to uproot the political machine of Thaksin, who is accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power.

"Come and join the people to get rid of the Thaksin regime and we can work together to change Thailand into a pure and democratic country," said Mr Suthep who has projected his fight as a non-violent campaign for democracy.

Still, he called on his supporters to attack and take over the Bangkok Metropolitan Police headquarters tomorrow, saying the police were lackeys of Thaksin and his sister.

"We're going to gather all our forces and we're going to take over the Metropolitan Police Bureau and make it the people's," he said.

Monday's violence took place around key institutions - Government House, the parliament and Metropolitan Police Bureau in the historic quarter of the capital. The area has some of Bangkok's main tourist attractions such as the Grand Palace, Wat Pho temple, Bangkok zoo, and the backpacker area of Khao San Road. Most of Bangkok, a city of 10 million, has been unaffected.

Analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said that while Suthep's demands might appear "bold and blatant", they go down well with the people ... who think that the electoral system can never be trusted and therefore they have to set up their own government and rewrite the rules".

The protesters' numbers have dwindled from a peak of 100,000-plus a week ago but hardcore groups have remained at the front line, fighting running battles with police.

In her news conference, Ms Yingluck stuck a conciliatory tone, repeatedly pleading for negotiations, and implied she was willing to hold fresh elections.

"I am not against either resignation or dissolution of parliament if this solution will stop the protests," she said. "The government is not trying to cling to power.

"If there's anything I can do to bring peace back to the Thai people I am happy to do it. The government is more than willing to have talks, but I myself cannot see a way out of this problem that is within the law and in the constitution."

She and Mr Suthep met briefly yesterday in the presence of top military leaders, even though he had an arrest warrant against him. A second arrest warrant was issued today on charges of insurrection.

His sustained campaign has raised suggestions that he might have the backing of the military, which has long had a powerful influence over Thai politics. The army has often stepped in during times of crisis, carrying out 18 successful or attempted coups since the 1930s.

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