Bangkok: Thailand`s army warned it may use force to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters camped out in central Bangkok as the authorities prepared to cut their supplies and the prime minister said they must quit on Wednesday.
At midnight, the army would shut off power, cut supplies and seal entrances to a plush central Bangkok district where thousands of "red shirt" protesters remain behind barricades of tires and bamboo staves, a spokesman for the army chief said.
"The measures to cut water and power are the first measures. If the protest does not end, we have to fully enforce the law which may involves using force to reclaim the area," said spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd.
The warning drew an immediate defiant response from the red shirts, who said their rally would not end.
"Whatever measure you use, we are not scared," Weng Tojirakarn, a leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), as the red shirts are formally called, told Reuters.
The authorities have been faced with the dilemma of how to dislodge thousands of protesters, including women and children, from the camp they have occupied for five weeks, which sprawls across 3 sq km (1.2 sq mile) of Bangkok`s main shopping district.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva offered an election on November 14 -- just over a year before one is due -- to try to end a movement that began in mid-March with a demand for an immediate poll. Twenty-nine people have died in violence and more than 1,000 have been wounded.
The protesters, mostly supporters of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a coup in 2006, have accepted the election date but are pushing other demands, in particular wanting a deputy prime minister to be charged in connection with a bloody clash with troops in April in which 25 people died.
Abhisit`s tone has hardened in the past two days and late on Tuesday he told reporters the cabinet had decided the security forces needed to "take measures" quickly and the protesters had to leave on Wednesday.
Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij forecast the economy would grow 4.5 to 5.0 percent this year but said the unrest could shave 0.3 point off the range.
Foreign investors have turned negative since violence flared in April and have sold 17.4 billion baht ($539 million) in Thai shares in the past five sessions, cutting their net buying so far this year to 21 billion baht as of Tuesday.
"We are not going anywhere until the government shows they will take responsibility for the clash," said 39-year-old protester Panna Saengkumboon. "People lost their eyes, their legs and arms. Others paid for this with their lives."