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Thai protesters block roads in bid to shut capital

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THANYARAT DOKSONE and TODD PITMAN | January 13, 2014 11:40 PM EST | AP

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BANGKOK (AP) — Anti-government protesters who blocked off intersections across Thailand's capital began marching toward several government ministries Tuesday on the second day of a renewed push to derail elections next month and unseat the prime minister.

The protesters had planned to "shut down" the city of 12 million people, but life continued normally in most places, with school classes restarting, commuters heading to work and most businesses remaining open.

Thousands of people — many of them southerners from out of town — slept in the streets in tents or on mats in the open air. Protests leaders pledged the demonstrators will stay camped out in the streets until an unelected "people's council" replaces Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's administration, which they accuse of corruption and misrule.

"Our goal is to get rid of this government," said Preecha Chamdee, a 46-year-old rubber tapper from eastern Rayong province.

Yingluck dissolved the lower house of Parliament last month and called elections Feb. 2 in a bid to ease tensions. But "an election is not an answer because they will win again," Preecha said. "We need reforms."

The intensified protests raise the stakes in a long-running crisis that has killed at least eight people in the last two months and fueled fears of more bloodshed to come and a possible army coup.

The real target of the protesters' wrath is Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled by the army in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction. They accuse Yingluck of being Thaksin's puppet, but the rural poor like him for the populist policies he implemented, including virtually free health care.

Critics say the protesters are merely trying to grab power because their political allies are unable to win a general election. Candlelight vigils have been held to counter the shutdown and urge the vote be held.

Yingluck proposed to meet Wednesday with various groups — including her opponents — to discuss a proposal from the Election Commission to postpone the elections. But protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban ruled out negotiations on Monday.

"You cannot mediate with this undertaking, you cannot compromise with this undertaking," he said. "In this undertaking, there's only win or lose ... today, we must cleanse Thailand."

The International Crisis Group think tank said the "scope for peaceful resolution is narrowing."

"If the sides can agree on the need to avoid violence and for a national dialogue built on a shared agenda, a solution might just possibly be found," the group said. "It is a slim reed on which to float hopes, but in Bangkok there is little else available."

The United States said Monday its ambassador and officials are engaged with "the full range of interested parties to encourage dialogue and a peaceful, democratic, political resolution." State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. is urging all sides to refrain from violence, and applauds the restraint shown so far by government authorities.

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Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Jinda Wedel in Bangkok and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.