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Protesters march to Thai prime minister's compound as battle for power escalates

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BANGKOK - Thailand's anti-government protesters left their main camp Monday to resettle near Parliament and the prime minister's vacated office compound, where their leader pledged to set up his new office in a direct challenge to the government's authority.

The country's new caretaker prime minister, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, meanwhile worked at a makeshift suburban outpost, underlining the government's weakness. He reiterated calls for a July election and said he and his Cabinet were committed to finding a peaceful solution to the country's political crisis.

Thailand's grinding 6-month political crisis has deepened since last week, when the constitutional Court removed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for nepotism in a case that many viewed as politically motivated. Nine Cabinet ministers were also dismissed.

Protesters say her removal is not enough. They want to set up an unelected "people's council" to implement still-undefined reforms to completely remove her family's influence from politics before any elections, which the current ruling party would likely win.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has called for a "final push" to install an unelected leader — a goal that critics call undemocratic but supporters say is necessary to carry out the reforms.

On Monday, Suthep ended a monthslong occupation of Bangkok's Lumpini Park, which protesters had converted into a litter-strewn campground. He led thousands of supporters to the Parliament, where the Senate was informally meeting to discuss the crisis and debate his controversial proposal for an appointed prime minister.

Suthep met at the Parliament with what appeared to be about half of the chamber's 150 senators, including new Speaker Surachai Liengboonlertchai, who is seen as sympathetic to his views.

Protesters were making their new main base outside the prime minister's office compound, called Government House, though after the meeting Suthep called for them also to stay outside Parliament, which is nearby. The executive compound has been vacant for months due to the threat of takeover by protesters.

Suthep says protesters will remain outside the compound and that he will not occupy the actual prime minister's office. But he plans to set up an office in the compound's Santi Maitree Building traditionally used for state visits.

The military that provides security at Government House said over the weekend that Suthep would be allowed in to avoid further clashes in a crisis that has left more than 20 dead and hundreds injured since November.

Police have sought for months to charge Suthep with insurrection, terrorism and other crimes for leading the protests.

Acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong defended the government's hands-off approach as good crisis management. "We do not want violence or any problems," he told reporters Monday.

Last week, Yingluck's remaining Cabinet named Niwattumrong, who was deputy premier, as acting leader. Government supporters have warned that any attempt to install an unelected prime minister could spark a "civil war."

Like Yingluck before him, he is forced to work out of the Office to the Permanent Secretary for Defence in the unfashionable suburb of Muang Thong Thani.

"I don't think we'll have a civil war," Niwattumrong told reporters. "It's already (been) six months, and we can manage the country quite well."

Both supporters and opponents are keeping large crowds of supporters in the Thai capital, which has raised concerns of clashes.

Thailand's political crisis began in 2006, when Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, remains highly popular among the rural poor in Thailand's north and northeast, and parties controlled by him have won every national election since 2001. The anti-government protesters, aligned with the opposition Democrat Party and backed by the country's traditional elites, say they want to remove all traces of his political machine from politics.

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