BANGKOK (AFP) — Seven leaders of anti-government protests in Thailand promised to surrender to police Thursday after the Appeals Court dropped insurrection charges against them, their spokesman said.
"All seven leaders will surrender but we will meet this afternoon to set the time and after that we will bail ourselves out to continue our fight," People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) spokesman Suriyasai Katasila told AFP.
"We have insisted for a long time that the insurrection charges are unconstitutional, illegitimate, an over-reaction and based on false witnesses and evidence to prevent people from going ahead with our movement," he added.
Thailand's army chief promised Thursday the military would not launch a coup after the worst street unrest in Bangkok for years, saying it would remain neutral as the political crisis unfolds.
Army chief General Anupong said the government must take the lead although troops remain on the streets since fatal clashes Tuesday between police and demonstrators left two people dead and 455 injured.
"The situation does not warrant staging a coup," he told Thai television. "It's up to the government to decide what to do if it cannot contain the situation."
Thai society is bitterly divided between supporters of the populist government, mostly the rural poor, and the country's royalist elite who form the mainstay of support for the anti-government PAD.
"We have to consider the whole country so it's not right to take sides with any groups -- the military belongs to the people," Anupong added.
In a potent indication of the scale of the crisis, the Thai cabinet was due to meet Thursday in an airport terminal that has been converted for their use while protesters occupy their government offices.
Officials said the meeting was planned to further divide up roles within government, but did not say if they would discuss the ongoing dispute.
The PAD claims the current government is running the country on behalf of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and objects to its plans to amend the constitution, which was brought in after the September 2006 coup that toppled him.
Tuesday's violence broke out after thousands of PAD supporters marched on parliament, where Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was due to give his first policy address.
On Wednesday the United States expressed its regret over the bloody street scenes and called for a respect for the rule of law.
"We regret yesterday's violence and are disturbed by reports that some demonstrators instigated violence against the police," a US State Department official said.
"We urge all parties to respect the rule of law and address their differences within Thailand's democratic institutions," the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The PAD has promised to wage its battle against the government using legal means, and denied that 10 of its members had hijacked a bus late Wednesday -- despite police reports to the contrary.
The group has said it will take accusations of violence by police to the international courts, and Wednesday applied for an injunction against the use of force by police.
Somchai's People Power Party in December won the first elections since the 2006 coup, but has been beset by protests and court decisions against it, one of which removed Somchai's predecessor Samak Sundaravej from office last month.
One court case that is outstanding against the PPP could yet see the party dissolved and forced from power.
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