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Defiant protesters march in Thailand's capital as state of emergency begins

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BANGKOK - As a state of emergency came into effect Wednesday in the Thai capital, defiant protesters marched on government offices and defaced the wall outside of national police headquarters, while a prominent government supporter in the country's northeast was the target of a shooting attack.

The government said it enacted the emergency decree to improve security and ensure that Feb. 2 elections, opposed by the protesters, are held without disruption. Officials declared there would be no crackdown on the demonstrators, who have seized several patches of the capital, and life in the city continued as normal with tourist sites unaffected and no major deployment of extra security forces.

The government announced the state of emergency late Tuesday in the wake of a string of attacks that have mostly been aimed at demonstrators protesting peacefully in Bangkok. Grenade assaults on Friday and Sunday killed one man and wounded more than 60 people, bringing the casualty toll since November to at least nine dead and more than 550 hurt.

Gunmen wounded a top leader of a pro-government movement in northeastern Thailand on Wednesday, in what many fear is a portent of increased violence if no negotiated solution is found to the political crisis.

Kwanchai Praipana was shot twice and hospitalized after gunmen in a pickup truck sprayed bursts of gunfire at his home in Udon Thani, according to Jatuporn Promphan, another leader of the "Red Shirt" group. The attackers have not been identified.

The emergency decree, which will remain in effect for 60 days, gives police expanded powers to make arrests, conduct searches and seize suspicious materials. The government said it imposed the measure in part to secure the city and because protesters have tried to shut down government offices and prevent civil servants from working.

"The caretaker government's enactment of the emergency decree today indicates its growing desperation," said a statement from the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee, which has been leading the protests. The group and its sympathizers say the decree is illegal and have threatened to go to court to invalidate it.

Thailand's conservative court system is widely seen as being biased against the current government, with the possibility that it could carry out a "judicial coup" to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on the basis of one of several lawsuits.

The protesters have blocked major streets and marched on government offices in a bid to shut down the capital and force Yingluck's resignation to make way for an appointed government to implement reforms to fight corruption, which they say must be implemented before any vote. The opposition Democrat Party, closely aligned with the protesters, is boycotting the polls.

The protesters charge that Yingluck's government is carrying on the practices of Thaksin Shinawatra, her billionaire brother who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, by using the family fortune and state funds to influence voters and cement its power.

Thaksin was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after protests accused him of corruption and abuse of power. He fled into exile in 2008 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a conflict of interest conviction.

The country's powerful army commander, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, said "we will have to see" whether the emergency decree helps ease the violence.

The protesters have refused to negotiate with Yingluck, but Prayuth urged both sides to talk, saying, "we must stop this conflict to let the country move forward."

"No one takes all or loses all. No one wins all or loses all, so we have to find a way," he said. "Whenever the conflict has gone to the point that it is not fixable, the soldiers have to fix it."

Thailand's military has staged 11 successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Prayuth has repeatedly said he does not want the army to intervene, but has pointedly refused to rule out a coup.

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Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report.

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