BANGKOK - Protesters dared the military to stop them as they headed Wednesday to rally in a Bangkok suburb, raising concerns of more clashes after government warnings that patience was running out in a seven-week standoff that has paralysed parts of the capital.
The Red Shirt protesters, who are demanding the dissolution of Parliament, sent hundreds of supporters in pickup trucks and on motorbikes to drum up support at an outdoor market north of the capital. The government has repeatedly said it will not tolerate protests beyond the commercial shopping zone where the Red Shirts have been entrenched for weeks.
"We are going to send (protesters) out of the rally site," a Red Shirt leader, Nattawut Saikua, said.
"If the military thinks it is necessary to use force to block us, it's all right. We are not afraid."
On Tuesday, protesters forced a four-hour shutdown of Bangkok's busy elevated train system during the morning rush hour. It caused commuter chaos and rattled Thais after bloody grenade attacks last week at a Skytrain station left one dead and more than 80 wounded.
At least 26 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded since protesters known as the Red Shirts began occupying parts of Bangkok in mid-March, closing down five-star hotels and shopping malls and devastating the country's vital tourism industry.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has repeatedly said he hopes to resolve the conflict peacefully but has yet to outline a clear plan on how to end the crisis after calling off negotiations with the protesters, who consider the government illegitimate and want Parliament disbanded.
His government has been criticised for excessive leniency and standing aside as protesters set up their base in the heart of Bangkok. The Red Shirts have fortified the stronghold, erecting barricades of tires, bamboo sticks and fencing along the streets in an area that spans more than 3sq km.
The area, which already reeks of garbage and urine, could become far filthier after Bangkok's deputy governor, Pornthep Techapaiboon, on Tuesday ordered a halt to trash collection there until the Red Shirts - who briefly blocked an intersection with stolen garbage trucks - promise to stop interfering with sanitation workers.
The government has warned that protesters would not be allowed to move outside their current rally zone but on Wednesday appeared to ease the ban.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban warned Tuesday that security forces would "intensify operations," but did not elaborate or say whether authorities would try to evict protesters from the streets, which would almost certainly lead to more bloodshed.
The government also has accused the protesters of trying to undermine the monarchy and the nation's revered king. Such a charge, which protest leaders strongly deny, could weaken their support.
The Red Shirts consist largely of poor, rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 on corruption allegations. The group believes that Abhisit's government - backed by the urban elite - is illegitimate, having been helped into power by the country's powerful military.