Thailand's government on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas to cope with protests that have stirred up violent attacks.
Labor Minister Chalerm Yubumrung announced that the measure would take effect Wednesday and continue for 60 days.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, in a speech to followers, questioned whether the declaration was justified, saying the demonstrators had peaceful.
"Is it right for them to use the emergency decree to declare a state of emergency to come and deal with us? Come and get us," he declared to an enthusiastic crowd of hundreds at a park in downtown Bangkok. Thousands more are encamped at other locations in the capital.
The emergency decree greatly expands the power of security forces to issue orders and search, arrest and detain people, with limited judicial and parliamentary oversight. The areas covered had already been placed under tougher-than-normal security under the country's Internal Security Act.
The protesters have been demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to make way for an appointed government to implement reforms to fight corruption. Yingluck called elections on Feb. 2 but the protesters are insisting they not be held.
The opposition Democrat Party, closely aligned with the protesters, is boycotting the polls.
The official announcement of the emergency decree said the elections would proceed as planned.
The state of emergency follows increasing attacks at protest sites for which the government and the protesters blame each other. These include grenades thrown in daylight and drive-by shootings. On Sunday, 28 people were wounded when two grenades were tossed at one of several protest sites set up at key Bangkok intersections.
Another grenade attack on a protest march last Friday killed one man and wounded dozens. No arrests have been made in either attack.
Nine people have been killed and hundreds hurt in violence since the protests began in early November. The protesters escalated their tactics this month with a threat to "shut down" the capital to prevent the government from functioning.
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 street 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.
Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said that in the view of security officials, "the protesters have constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working."
He added that Suthep's group "had gone overboard, and attacks were carried out by ill-intentioned people, causing people to be injured and killed, affecting the country's stability."
"I insist the government will adhere to international standards, using neither force nor weapons in cracking down on protesters," he added.
The Associated Press