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(Reuters) – Protesters seized the Kiev office of President Viktor Yanukovich on Saturday and the opposition demanded a new election be held by May, as the pro-Russian leader’s grip on power rapidly eroded following bloodshed in the capital.

Anti-government demonstrators entered Yanukovich’s compound in the capital and were controlling the entrance, a Reuters reporter said at the scene. Security guards were present inside the building but were not trying to expel the protesters.

The president’s residence outside the capital appeared to have been abandoned. Local media said protesters entered the sprawling grounds but it was unclear whether they were inside the building. Interfax said some security guards were present.

A security source said the president was still in Ukraine but was unable to confirm whether he was in Kiev.

Yanukovich, who enraged much of the population by turning away from the European Union to build closer ties with Russia three months ago, made sweeping concessions in a deal brokered by European diplomats on Friday after days of violence that killed 77 people, with central Kiev resembling a war zone.

But the deal, which called for early elections by the end of the year, was not enough to satisfy demonstrators, who want him out immediately after bloodshed that saw his police snipers shooting from rooftops.

Parliament has quickly acted to implement the deal, voting to restore a constitution that curbs the president’s powers and to change the legal code possibly allowing his arch-adversary, jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, to go free.

The speaker of parliament, a Yanukovich loyalist, resigned and parliament on Saturday elected Oleksander Turchynov, a close ally of Tymoshenko, as his replacement.

Events were moving at a rapid pace that could see a decisive shift in the future of a country of 46 million people away from Moscow’s orbit and closer to the West, although Ukraine is near bankruptcy and depends on Russian aid to pay its debt.

“Today he (Yanukovich) left the capital,” opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, a retired world heavyweight boxing champion, told an emergency session of parliament debating an opposition motion calling on the president to resign.

“Millions of Ukrainians see only one choice – early presidential and parliamentary elections.” Klitschko then tweeted that an election should be held no later than May 25.

The senior security source said of Yanukovich: “Everything’s ok with him … He is in Ukraine.” Asked whether the leader was in Kiev, the source replied: “I cannot say.”

The UNIAN news agency cited Anna Herman, a lawmaker close to Yanukovich, as saying the president was in the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

At the president’s office in the capital, Ostap Kryvdyk, who described himself as a protest commander, said some protesters had entered the offices but there was no looting.

“We will guard the building until the next president comes,” he told Reuters. “Yanukovich will never be back.”

In a sign of the quick transformation, the interior ministry responsible for the police appeared to swing behind the protests. It said it served “exclusively the Ukrainian people and fully shares their strong desire for speedy change.”

Parliament voted on Friday to dismiss Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, a Yanukovich loyalist blamed by the opposition for the bloodshed.

The ministry urged citizens to unite “in the creation of a truly independent, democratic and just European country”.

Yanukovich’s broad concessions on Friday brought an end to 48 hours of violence that had turned the centre of Kiev into an inferno of blazing barricades. Without enough loyal police to restore order, the authorities resorted to placing snipers on rooftops who shot demonstrators in the head and neck.

The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland negotiated the concessions from Yanukovich, in what the Kremlin’s envoy acknowledged as superior diplomacy.

“The EU representatives were in their own way trying to be useful, they started the talks,” said Russian envoy Vladimir Lukin. “We joined the talks later, which wasn’t very right. One should have agreed on the format of the talks right from the start,” Lukin was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

Yanukovich, 63, a burly former Soviet regional transport official with two convictions for assault, did not smile during a signing ceremony at the presidential headquarters on Friday.

“YOU’LL ALL BE DEAD”

It took hard lobbying to persuade the opposition to accept the deal, and crowds in the streets made clear they were not satisfied with an arrangement that would leave Yanukovich in power. Video filmed outside a meeting room during a break in the talks showed Polish Foreign Minister Vladislaw Sikorski pleading with opposition delegates: “If you don’t support this, you’ll have martial law, you’ll have the army, you’ll all be dead.”

Anti-government protesters remained encamped in Independence Square, known as the Maidan or “Euro-Maidan”, through the night. They held aloft coffins of slain comrades and denounced opposition leaders for shaking Yanukovich’s hand.

The week’s violence was by far the worst to hit Ukraine since it emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union.

With borders drawn up by Bolshevik commissars, Ukraine has faced an identity crisis since independence. It fuses territory that was mostly part of Russia since the Middle Ages with provinces that were parts of Poland and Austria until they were annexed by the Soviets in the 20th century.

In the country’s east, most people speak Russian. In the west, most speak Ukrainian and many despise Moscow. Successive governments have sought closer relations with the European Union, but have been unable to wean their heavy Soviet-era industry from dependence on cheap Russian gas.

The past week saw the country on the verge of splitting, with central authority vanishing altogether in the west, where anti-Russian demonstrators seized government buildings and police fled. Deaths in the capital cost Yanukovich support of wealthy industrialists who previously backed him.

Yanukovich’s fall would be a setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had made tying Ukraine into a Moscow-led Eurasian Union a cornerstone of his efforts to reunite as much as possible of the former Soviet Union.

Moscow had maintained that the protesters were terrorists and coup plotters, had denounced the West for supporting them and encouraged Yanukovich to crush them.

“This is not democracy, this is anarchy and chaos. And we’ll see what comes out of it,” Alexei Pushkov, head of Russia’s State Duma foreign affairs committee and a member of Putin’s United Russia party said after the deal was signed, though he said the pact would be positive if it ended violence.

Washington took a back seat in the final phase of negotiations, its absence noteworthy after a senior U.S. official was recorded using an expletive to disparage EU diplomacy on an unsecured telephone line last month.

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to Putin by phone.

The outlook for Ukraine’s economy is dire and Russia has not made clear whether it will still pay the promised $15 billion in aid. Ukraine cancelled a planned issue of 5-year Eurobonds worth $2 billion on Thursday. Kiev had hoped Russia would buy the bonds to help it stave off bankruptcy.

Chalerm threatens to crack down on protesters

Posted by Rattana_S On February - 17 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(The Nation) Chalerm Yoobamrung, the director of the Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order, Monday threatened to crack down on rally sites where there are only a few protesters.

“From now on, I’ll pounce on any rally site when there is small number of protesters,” an angry Chalerm said.

Chalerm, also caretaker labour minister, said he would act against protesters because Suthep Thaugsuban, secretary-general of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, had breached his promise to rally only at Asoke intersection, Lumpini park, Ratchaprasong intersection and Pathumwan Intersection.

Chalerm said Suthep mobilised some 4,000 protesters to surround the Government House and that 500 of this number were security guards.

He said he wasn’t worried that the protesters had built concrete walls to block two gates of the Government House because the government could easily use a bulldozer to knock the walls down.

But he said he found it unacceptable that Suthep had broken his promise by holding a rally at the Government House and would therefore crack down on the protesters whenever it was possible.

He said the protesters, who were in small number, would be arrested for violating the emergency decree and obstructing traffic.

Thai PM under siege, lengthy protests take toll on economy

Posted by Rattana_S On February - 17 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(Reuters) – Protesters seeking to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra surrounded Thai government headquarters on Monday in response to police efforts to clear them from the streets, as farmers besieged her temporary office to demand payment for rice.

Thailand has been in crisis since November, when Bangkok’s middle class and the royalist establishment started a protest aimed at eradicating the influence of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin, a populist former premier ousted by the army in 2006 who is seen as the power behind her government.

Data published on Monday showed the economy grew just 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter from the third and, with the country likely to be without a fully functioning government for months, the state planning board slashed its forecast for 2014.

About 10,000 anti-government demonstrators surrounded Government House in Bangkok, taking back control of a road the police had cleared them from on Friday in the first real sign of a pushback by the authorities after months of protests.

These protesters view Yingluck as a proxy for Thaksin, who has lived in exile since 2008 rather than face a jail term for abuse of power handed down in absentia that year.

“We will use quick-dry cement to close the gates of Government House so that the cabinet cannot go in to work,” said Nittitorn Lamrue of the Network of Students and People for Thailand’s Reform, aligned with the main protest movement.

It was a symbolic gesture, Yingluck having been forced to work elsewhere since January.

The separate protests by rice farmers could turn out to be more damaging for Yingluck.

Rural voters swept her to power in 2011, when her Puea Thai Party pledged to pay rice farmers way above market prices for their harvest. But the program has run into funding problems and some farmers have not been paid for months.

“END OF OUR TETHER”

Television showed farmers climbing over barbed wire fences and barriers at a Defense Ministry compound where Yingluck has set up temporary offices. They pushed back riot police, who retreated from confrontation, but did not enter the building.

“The prime minister is well off but we are not. How are we going to feed our children? I want her to think about us,” said one protesting farmer. “Farmers are tough people, they wouldn’t normally speak out but they are at the end of their tether.”

Farmers’ representatives later met ministers, but when Finance Minister Kittirat Na Ranong came out to speak to the crowd he was pelted with plastic bottles.

The government hopes to sell about 1 million tons of rice through tenders this month to replenish its rice fund and is also seeking bank loans to help it pay the farmers.

The Government Savings Bank said on Sunday it had lent 5 billion baht ($153 million) to the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), which runs the rice scheme.

It did not say what the money would be used for, but some depositors, apparently hearing on social media that it would be used for the rice payments and would therefore help the government, took their money from the bank on Monday.

“Today the bank’s clients took out around 30 billion baht. Most clients who withdrew were in Bangkok and the south. Around 10 billion baht was deposited. This doesn’t impact the stability of the bank,” Worawit Chalimpamontri, president of the savings bank, told a televised news conference.

He said there would be no more interbank lending to the BAAC because the loan was “misused”. He did not elaborate.

The 30 billion baht withdrawn represents about 1.6 percent of total deposits, according to Reuters calculations.

DISRUPTED ELECTION

Yingluck called a snap election in December and has since led a caretaker administration with only limited powers.

The election took place on February 2 but it was disrupted in parts of Bangkok and the south, the powerbase of the opposition, and it may be many months before there is a quorum in parliament to elect a new prime minister.

The Election Commission has set April 27 as the date to re-run voting that was disrupted but the government said on Monday it wanted the much earlier date of March 2.

“According to the law, the House of Representatives must convene 30 days after a general election,” Pongthep Thepkanjana, a deputy prime minister, said after a meeting between the commission and government.

That date seems improbable, especially as the commission and government can’t agree on procedures for fresh voting and the Constitutional Court may be asked to rule.

The anti-government protesters, who are aligned with the main opposition Democrat Party, want electoral rules changed to limit Thaksin’s influence before an election is held, although their precise demands remain vague.

They accuse Thaksin of nepotism and corruption and say he used taxpayers’ money for generous subsidies and easy loans that have bought him the loyalty of millions of poorer voters in the north and northeast.

Consumer confidence sank in January to its lowest level in more than two years and, with big infrastructure projects on hold because of the political vacuum, the planning agency cut its forecast for economic growth in 2014 to between 3.0 and 4.0 percent from 4.0-5.0 percent seen in November.

“Confidence is low and private sector demand in the domestic economy remains weak given the political deadlock,” said Gundy Cahyadi, an economist with DBS Bank in Singapore.

($1 = 32.5900 baht)

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Athit Perawongmetha and Orathai Sriring; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Alex Richardson and Robert Birsel)

Thai police clear some protest sites in Bangkok

Posted by Rattana_S On February - 14 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

Police have been deployed in Bangkok to retake some sites occupied by protesters since they kicked off their anti-government campaign in November.

Police moved into one of the main roads in the Thai capital’s royal quarter, facing little resistance.

But they had to pull back from another protest camp at a government complex because of the likelihood of violence.

The protesters, who want the government to resign, have set up camps at key junctions and government offices.

National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabut said several sites would be targeted.

“We will re-take wherever we can and arrest protest leaders,” he said. “It’s not a crackdown on the protests – it’s enforcement of the law over the protest sites.”

The operation was focusing on government sites, rather than the blocked road junctions in commercial and business areas, reports said.

Near Government House, hundreds of police removed barriers blocking a main road, with no immediate opposition from protesters – many of whom had already chosen to leave.

But police had to abandon their plan to retake a larger, well-fortified protest camp in a northern suburb next to several government ministries after protesters refused to move.

To date, security personnel have steered clear of confronting the protesters to avoid violence.

At least 10 people have died since the protesters took to the streets in November. They want the government of Yingluck Shinawatra to resign, saying the prime minister is controlled by her brother, ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

They allege that money politics have corrupted Thailand’s democracy and want the government to be replaced by an unelected “people’s council” to reform the political system.

In response to the protests, Ms Yingluck – who leads a government that won elections in 2011 with broad support from rural areas – called a snap general election on 2 February.

But the polls were boycotted by the opposition and disrupted by protesters in some places, meaning by-elections need to take place in April before a government can be formed.

The opposition also challenged the legality of the poll, but Thailand’s constitutional court rejected the move, citing insufficient grounds.

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