Bangkok in a state of emergency after MPs forced to flee

The Thai prime minister announces new security measures after anti-government protesters charge into parliament building.

BANGKOK // Thailand's beseiged government has declared a state of emergency in the capital and surrounding provinces after demonstrators charged into parliament and forced some MPs to flee in helicopters.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, went on state television to announce the new security measures which took effect immediately. The premier said it was a necessary step to return the situation to normal and would help the government take effective legal action against the leaders of the demonstrations, which have paralysed much of Bangkok for the past three weeks. The new measures allow the military to restore order and the suspension of certain civil liberties. There is also a ban on all public gatherings of more than five people.

The scene outside parliament was among the most chaotic and confrontational since the protests began on March 12. Protesters massing outside the 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 swarmed into the grounds, including dozens packed on a truck that drove through the main entrance. They pressed up against security forces outside the lobby doors but left after about 20 minutes, only to regroup outside the gates, brandishing guns and tear gas canisters they said were seized in scuffles with military police. Ministers had earlier held a cabinet meeting at parliament. Some, including Mr Abhisit, had left before the protesters broke through, but other ministers had to scale a wall in the compound and escape by military helicopter. "We have achieved our mission today," Korkaew Pikulthong, a Red Shirt leader, told the crowd through a bullhorn.

No injuries were reported. The leaders of the anti-government demonstrations, who are demanding that Mr Abhisit dissolve parliament and call fresh elections vowed to keep their ground in the centre of the city's commercial area. "I ask all the Red Shirts in the city and nearby provinces to join forces with us here," Natthawut Saikua, another protest leader, said to assembled supporters after the prime minister called a state of emergency. "We'll fight against the guns with our bare hands."

"Red Shirts in other provinces can converge on their respective city halls," Mr Natthawut suggested. The anti-government protesters are known as Red Shirts because of their attire, which has become their political symbol. Many of the Red Shirts, who form the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, an opposition movement, support the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, who was ousted in a military coup in September 2006 and fled Thailand some 20 months ago while on bail for corruption charges.

For more than three weeks, tens of thousands of Red Shirts have laid seige to key parts of the capital ciy. Most of them are poor farmers from the north and north-east who feel they have been cheated by the wealthy middle class and social elite who live in Bangkok. While the increased security measures gave the army and the police greater leeway to deal with the protesters, it is unclear whether the army will use those measures. So far the army chief, Anupong Paojinda, has warned the premier that the soldiers cannot use force to disperse the Red Shirts. Over the past three weeks, the interaction between the security forces and the protesters clearly reveals sympathy for the Red Shirt cause. The prime minister seems to have been left with no alternative but to call a state of emergency. "He's been left red-faced two days in a row," said a western diplomat based in Bangkok on condition of anonymity. On Tuesday, the protestors walked in to the electoral commisison, which they blame for the disbanding of their Peoples' Power Party that won the elections in December 2007 and the banning of a dozen of the party's leaders from politics.

For the past five days the Red Shirts have occupied the commercial centre of the city, causing the enormous shopping malls to remain closed. "We are attacking the city's commercial hub because these are the key supporters of the current government," a spokesman for the Red Shirts, Sean Boonpracong, recently said. The owners and managers of these complexes are complaining bitterly over the losses they have already suffered. Since these closed on Saturday, they have lost an estimated US$10 million (Dh36.7m) a day, according to a study released by the Thai chamber of commerce.

Thailand's tourist arrivals, one of its most important industries, dropped by more than 10 per cent last month because of the political unrest, Chumpol Silpa-archa, the tourism minister said earlier this week. * With additional reporting by Reuters