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Thai PM faces negligence charges

The charges relate to a disastrous rice subsidy scheme which paid farmers above the market price.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Picture: AFP.

BANGKOK - Thailand's anti-corruption agency brings charges of negligence against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Thursday as anti-government protesters demand her ouster in a standoff marred by violence that shows no sign of coming to an end.

The charges relate to a disastrous rice subsidy scheme that paid farmers above the market price and has run out of funds, adding to the government's woes as farmers - normally the prime minister's biggest supporters - demand their money.

More than 300 government supporters gathered outside the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) in north Bangkok where the charges were due to be brought, as riot police stood guard inside the three-storey complex.

Some of Yingluck's supporters threatened to seal off the grounds with cement in a symbolic show of resistance to the legal action against her.

The anti-government protesters elsewhere in the city, whose disruption of a general election this month has left Thailand in paralysis, want to topple Yingluck and erase the influence of her brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, seen by many as the real power in the country.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said he was willing to appear in a live television debate with Yingluck after weeks of refusing any form of talks.

"Just tell me when and where," he told supporters. "Give us two chairs and a microphone and transmit it live on television so the people can see."

Yingluck gave a guarded response to the proposal.

A general election this month was disrupted by the protesters and is unlikely to be completed for many weeks.

The protesters want to set up a "people's council" of unspecified worthy people to spearhead political reform before new polls are held, hoping that will stop parties loyal to the self-exiled Thaksin winning.

They have been on Bangkok's streets since November and have blocked main intersections for weeks to press their case.

Intermittent bursts of gunfire and grenade blasts have become routine at night in the political conflict, which has taken a heavy toll on tourism in the capital, famous for its golden temples and racy bars.

Rock guitarist Eric Clapton has pulled out of a Bangkok concert scheduled for Sunday because of deteriorating security.

POSSIBLE PENALTIES

Yingluck was a no-show at the anti-corruption agency hearing, sending her legal team instead.

The agency is investigating at least 15 cases against Yingluck and her party members, ranging from allegations of corruption in water projects to moves to make the Senate a fully elected body, which a court ruled illegal.

Yingluck has denied negligence and accused the agency of bias, noting that a rice corruption case involving the previous administration had made no progress after more than four years.

The protests have triggered violence in which 21 people have been killed and more than 700 wounded.

The United States and European Union called for restraint. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was ready to help find a solution.

The crisis pits the mainly middle-class and southern anti-government demonstrators, who are backed by the royalist establishment, against the largely rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin in the north and northeast.

Both sides have armed activists and some pro-government leaders have called for Thailand to be divided in two, along north-south political lines, prompting talk of a civil war.

The standoff also raises the question of whether the military will step in, as it has many times before, most recently in 2006 to remove Thaksin, although the army chief has ruled out intervention this time.

But it has stepped up its security presence in Bangkok after two nights of violence.