Hundreds of protesters have stormed the grounds of Thailand’s parliament, forcing government ministers to flee by helicopter and raising pressure in a four-week street rally seeking snap elections.
The red-shirted supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra later retreated, but tens of thousands remain in Bangkok’s main shopping district, refusing orders to leave until prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolves parliament.
The scene outside parliament was among the most chaotic and confrontational since the sporadic protests began on March 12.
Protesters massing outside gates of the sprawling complex pressed up against a line of police in full riot gear.
When some “red shirts” forced open the iron gate, police melted away and hundreds of protesters swarmed onto the grounds, including dozens packed on the back of a truck that drove into the main entrance.
They pressed up against security forces outside the lobby doors but left after about 20 minutes only to gather again outside the gates, brandishing guns and tear-gas canisters they said were seized in a scuffle with military police.
Ministers had held a cabinet meeting inside the building earlier but some had left before the protesters broke through.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and several other ministers escaped by helicopter.
“Many of us climbed over a parliament wall to an adjacent compound where a government helicopter waited to take us away,” Satit Wongnongtoey, a minister attached to the prime minister’s office, said on television.
Mr Abhisit is facing pressure from Bangkok’s elite and middle class and even his own government to halt the rally, but has held back to avert a confrontation many believe would cause even greater damage.
Threats to arrest the protesters have not been carried out, emboldening the movement.
The red shirts have taken aim at the urbane, Oxford- and Eton-educated economist, whom they see as a front man for an unelected elite and military that is secretly intervening in politics and operating with impunity.
They say Mr Abhisit, who came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin ruling party, should call an election and let the people choose their government.
Red-shirt leaders say they will respect the result.