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Thai King Backs Coup Leader

The army commander who seized Thailand's government Wednesday in a quick, bloodless coup pledged to hold elections by October 2007 and received a ringing endorsement from the country's revered king.

"In order to create peace in the country, the king appoints Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin as head of the council of administrative reform," according to the announcement on state-run television. "All people should remain peaceful and civil servants should listen to order from Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin from now on."

Sondhi led a precision takeover overnight without firing a shot, sending soldiers and tanks to guard major intersections and surround government buildings while the popularly elected Thaksin Shinawatra, accused of corruption and undermining democratic institutions, was abroad.

Asked if there would be moves to confiscate Thaksin's vast assets, Sondhi said at a news conference that "those who have committed wrongdoings have to be prosecuted according to the law."

Sondhi did not elaborate. But an announcement later on state-run television said the newly formed Council of Administrative Reform had sacked the state audit commissioners and given additional powers to Auditor General Jaruvan Maintaka to investigative government corruption, which could lead to the confiscation of Thaksin's assets.

A British government spokesman said Thaksin was en route to Britain, where he has a residence in London, but had no meetings scheduled with Prime Minister Tony Blair or other officials.

Sondhi said he would act as prime minister for two weeks until a new leader is found, that an interim constitution would be drafted within that time, and that Thailand's foreign policy and international agreements will not change.

Thailand will hold a general election in October 2007, he said.

Thaksin took office in 2001, but his term has caused a tempest of controversy in the country amid charges of corruption, reports CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata.

On Monday he said he would consider stepping down as prime minister, but the heavily armed opposition has helped make that decision for him.

Most residents and tourists in Bangkok, a city of more than 10 million, were calm and unfazed Wednesday after the country's first coup in 15 years.

About 500 people gathered outside army headquarters Wednesday afternoon lending moral support to the military and chanting "Thaksin Get Out!"

The newly created Council of Administrative Reform put Thailand under martial law and declared a provisional authority loyal to the king, seizing television and radio stations and ordering government offices, banks, schools and the stock market to close for the day.

Nearly 20 tanks — their gun barrels festooned with ribbons in the monarch's color, yellow — had blocked off the Royal Palace, Royal Plaza, army headquarters and Thaksin's office at Government House.

Tanks began shifting from their downtown Bangkok positions Wednesday evening, but it was unclear if they were withdrawing. Military public relations officials said they could not immediately comment.

The overthrow was needed "to resolve the conflict and bring back normalcy and harmony among people," Sondhi said on nationwide TV.

"We would like to reaffirm that we don't have any intention to rule the country and will return power to the Thai people as soon as possible," he said, flanked by the three armed forces chiefs and the national police chief.

A statement from coup leaders urged workers and farmers — Thaksin's key constituents — to remain calm, and said unauthorized gatherings of more than five people were punishable by six months in prison under martial law.

The Nation newspaper in Bangkok said several senior government officials and others close to Thaksin had been arrested, their fates unknown. It said they included Deputy Prime Minister Chitchai Wannasathit and Supreme Military Commander Gen. Ruengroj Maharsaranond. Agriculture Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, one of Thaksin's closest political associates, fled to Paris with her family, it said.

Reacting to rumors that he would be appointed interim prime minister, central bank head Pridiyathorn Devakula said, "I haven't been approached and I don't know whether I am a candidate."

He said that the public has accepted the coup, so it was unlikely to have much impact on foreign confidence in the country, and that the Thai baht currency had recovered from its overnight low with no intervention.

In New York, a Thai business executive who said he was speaking on behalf of Thaksin said the toppled leader was not resigned to his fate.

"The prime minister has not given up his power," said Tom Kruesopon, chief executive officer of Boon Rawd Trading International Co., who said he was traveling with Thaksin.

But Thaksin's official government spokesman, Surapong Suebwonglee, also traveling with him, was gloomier. "We have to accept what happened," he said. "We are not coming back soon."

Some Thais welcomed the coup as a necessary climax to months of demands for Thaksin's resignation amid allegations of corruption and electoral skullduggery, and a worsening Muslim insurgency in south Thailand.

The U.S. State Department said it was uneasy about the takeover and hopes "the Thai people will resolve their political differences in accord with democratic principles and the rule of law."

Australia said it was concerned to see democracy "destroyed," and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said her country "condemns" the coup.

Japan called for efforts to quickly restore democracy in Thailand, where many leading Japanese businesses have factories and affiliates.

Sondhi, 59, known to be close to Thailand's constitutional monarch, is a Muslim in a Buddhist-dominated nation.

He was selected last year to head the army, partly because it was felt he could better deal with the Muslim insurgency in the south, where 1,700 people have been killed since 2004. He has urged negotiations with the separatists, in contrast to Thaksin's hard-line approach.

Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon before entering politics, handily won three general elections after coming to power in 2001 and garnered great support among the rural poor for his populist policies.

But he alienated the urban middle class, intellectuals and pro-democracy activists. They began mass street demonstrations late last year, charging him with abuse of power, corruption and emasculation of the country's democratic institutions, including media that were once among Asia's freest.

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