BANGKOK - Thousands of pro-government "Red Shirts" massed in Thailand's capital Saturday to challenge attempts by opposition protesters to hand power to an unelected regime, warning that the kingdom was lurching towards "civil war".
The dismissal of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and nine ministers by the Constitutional Court this week for the improper transfer of a top security official has plunged the restive kingdom deeper into crisis.
Officials said about 3,000 police officers were on standby for the pro-government rally on the western outskirts of Bangkok on Saturday, with turnout expected to peak in the evening.
Holding aloft portraits of Yingluck, the red-clad movement said it would keep up the protest for as long as it deemed necessary to defend the wounded administration.
"The Red Shirts cannot accept the undemocratic and unconstitutional appointment of a prime minister," said chairman Jatuporn Prompan, denouncing a call by the opposition for judges, the Senate president and other prominent figures to choose a new premier.
"It would be the beginning of a disaster for the country that will lead to civil war," he said.
Opposition demonstrators are gearing up to try to deliver a knock-out blow to the remnants of the government, to enable an unelected leadership to take the reins of the Southeast Asian nation and oversee vague reforms they say would tackle corruption.
Such a move would infuriate supporters of Yingluck and her elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier who was deposed by royalist generals in a coup in 2006, an event that ushered in years of political turmoil.
A military crackdown on Red Shirt protests against the previous government left dozens dead in central Bangkok in 2010.
- Coup fears -
The spectre of the military seizing power also looms constantly over Thailand, which has seen 18 successful or attempted coups since 1932.
"The government is spending its energies hoping to keep military action at bay," said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.
"I am afraid an army coup could be approaching," he added.
Political violence has left at least 25 people dead and hundreds wounded in gun and grenade attacks by shadowy assailants in recent months, mostly targeting opposition demonstrators.
The fear is that armed elements on both sides of the political divide could seek to incite further unrest.