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Thai Anti-Government Leaders Escape Capture

The Thai government's new offensive against anti-government protesters got off to a bad start when efforts to arrest their leaders failed. An investigation is under way into the failed operation.

Government officials say they will investigate just how three leaders of the anti-government protests managed to escape when police tried to surround their hotel Friday.

One of the leaders climbed down three floors using a rope, and was rushed away by supporters thronging the building.

Protest supporter Sanyiam Puy-Thong, who was outside the hotel, says he heard explosions or gunfire inside the building. "Government have the order, would like to catch our leader. That is, the government say our leader be the terrorists, then they try to catch. They try to catch our leader, stop our asking for democracy," he said.

Officials earlier Friday said the government is preparing to arrest people linked to clashes with security forces last Saturday that left 24 soldiers and protesters dead.

The government says armed men infiltrated protester ranks and fired on troops trying to disperse a rally.

The anti-government movement, led by the United Democratic Front against Dictatorship or UDD, demands that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva call fresh elections. UDD supporters have held protests in Bangkok for more than a month.

Most UDD supporters back former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and remains overseas to avoid a jail sentence for corruption. Mr. Thaksin has strong support among the rural and urban poor, as well among some sections of the army and police.

But the anti-government rallies have led to a growing movement to support Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

On Friday several thousand pro-government supporters rallied outside an army base where Mr. Abhisit has had to work for security reasons.

Siriwan Torpradit says she wants to see a return of national unity. "Red shirt...I want to stop and I want everybody, I think everybody love our Thailand and love our King. And, I want to stop for Thailand, for our King. I think everybody don't want kill. Thai people don't kill Thai people. I want [this] to stop; everybody stop and I have to. Thailand is land of smiles soon," she said.

Sunai Pasuk, the representative for Human Rights Watch in Thailand, says fears remain that there will be more clashes. "The government is now confronting a very difficult situation. On the side of the protester[s] they are so determined to defy the government at all costs. But the police are not doing the job they are supposed to do. That has left the government with no option but to rely on the military and that is a very dangerous situation," he said.

Thailand is facing its most severe political crisis in almost 20 years. Some parties in the governing coalition want to set a clear time frame for elections to ease tensions. But the government says it will only call elections once the political situation has cooled.