BANGKOK: Dozens of Thai opposition protesters were arrested Tuesday during a police operation to seize back besieged state buildings in the capital Bangkok, sparking a tense standoff near the government headquarters.
It was the first time that so many protesters have been detained since mass rallies seeking to overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra began more than three months ago.
About 100 demonstrators were arrested at an energy ministry complex on charges of violating a state of emergency, National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabut told AFP.
"There was no resistance," he said. "They were overwhelmed by the police forces."
Riot police with batons, shields and helmets were also deployed near the government headquarters, after protesters returned to areas around the complex following a similar police operation on Friday to reclaim the building.
The two sides were locked in a tense confrontation across barbed wire barricades, with demonstrators rejecting a police demand to leave the area around Yingluck's offices within one hour.
"The government cannot work here anymore," said a spokesman for the anti-government movement, Akanat Promphan.
"The arrests don't affect us. The will of the people is still strong. The government is trapped. It has no way forward."
On Monday, demonstrators poured buckets of cement onto a sandbag wall in front of a gate to Government House.
The protesters are demanding Yingluck resign and hand power to a temporary, unelected government that would carry out reforms to tackle corruption and alleged misuse of public funds before new elections are held.
Years of rival protests
Thailand has been periodically rocked by mass demonstrations staged by rival protest groups since a controversial military coup in 2006 that ousted then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra - Yingluck's brother.
Eleven people have died and hundreds of others have been injured in political violence linked to the latest round of rallies, which have been targeted by a series of grenade attacks and drive-by shootings by unidentified perpetrators.
Demonstrators have blocked major intersections in a self-styled "shutdown" of the capital, although attendance has dropped sharply compared with December and January when at the peak tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of people took to the streets.
So far the authorities have not announced any plan to clear those road junctions in the retail and commercial centre.
Yingluck's government held a general election on February 2 in an attempt to defuse tensions, but the opposition boycotted the vote, saying it would not end the kingdom's long-running political crisis.
Demonstrators prevented 10,000 polling stations from opening in the election, affecting several million people.
Yingluck's opponents say she is a puppet for her brother Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-politician who fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.
Pro-Thaksin parties have triumphed at the ballot box for more than a decade, helped by strong support in the northern half of the kingdom.
But many southerners and Bangkok residents accuse Thaksin and his sister of using taxpayers' money to buy the support of rural voters through populist policies such as a controversial rice farm subsidy scheme.
Thaksin is also hated by many in the kingdom's royalist establishment who see him as a threat to the monarchy, at a time of anxiety over the health of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Some observers say that behind the street protests, a clash is unfolding over who will be running the country when the revered but ailing monarch's more than six-decade reign comes to an end.
The deployment of security forces has revived memories of a military crackdown on mass pro-Thaksin "Red Shirt" rallies in 2010 under the previous government that left dozens dead.
Yingluck's government has so far been reluctant to use force to disperse the latest protests while the military - traditionally a staunch backer of the anti-Thaksin establishment - has said that it does not want to be drawn into the standoff.
At the same time the army chief has refused to rule out another coup, while the United States has urged the military not to seize power again. -AFP