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More than 100 people protest coup in Thailand as undemocratic

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BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ More than 100 protesters Friday defied a ban on public gatherings and denounced the military overthrow of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in the first anti-coup rally since he was deposed three days ago.

The new military rulers, meanwhile, appointed nine people to investigate corruption under Thaksin and announced plans to write a new constitution to hold future leaders more accountable.

``Don't call this reform, this is a coup!'' said one sign held by protesters who stood scattered in several groups to avoid the restrictions banning public gatherings of more than five people. At one point, protesters staged a sit-in in groups of under five people.

The Bangkok protest was held outside an upscale shopping mall, Siam Paragon, which closed temporarily during the one-hour gathering. The protesters broke up afterward, and there was no apparent police or military presence. Protest organizers said seven people were detained but the claim could not immediately be confirmed.

Under sharp criticism from the international community for their coup, the military rulers were moving to appoint a civilian interim prime minister. A spokesman, Lt. Gen. Palanggoon Klaharn, said that would take place within two weeks, as promised.

The military leaders who seized power Tuesday while Thaksin was in New York reaffirmed their ``intention to bring back peace and order,'' said Lt. Gen. Palanggoon Klaharn, a spokesman.

He also sought to quash rumors circulating in Bangkok of a possible countercoup.

``Soldiers must strictly adhere to the orders of their commanders. The rumor about a countercoup is untrue,'' Palanggoon said.

The military rulers, formally called the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy, said they were appointing nine people to a reconstituted corruption commission to investigate wrongdoing by the Thaksin government.

Following their rapid, bloodless coup, the council scrapped Thailand's 1997 constitution, which had been aimed at ushering in a stable democracy, but instead allowed Thaksin to consolidate extraordinary powers in his hands.

Palanggoon said an effort would be made to work out the ``loopholes'' in the constitution to make leaders more accountable.

The revived National Counter Corruption Commission includes Klanarong Chanthik, who had been secretary general of the anti-graft body in 2001 when it unsuccessfully sought to prosecute Thaksin for concealing assets.

After Klanarong stepped down, he became one of Thaksin's most vociferous critics.

The new military rulers also searched for a prominent, corruption-free civilian to be interim leader while purging Thaksin's associates, including four senior police officers. Three ministers of the deposed government were in custody and other detentions were expected.

Media speculation Friday focused on several possible candidates with clean records, including Supachai Panitchpadki, who heads the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, Supreme Administrative Court President Ackaratorn Chularat, and Pridiyathorn Devakula, who heads Thailand's central bank.

Supachai, who formerly headed the World Trade Organization, enjoys a sound international reputation while Ackaratorn was earlier mandated by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country's revered and powerful monarch, to resolve the political crisis swirling around Thaksin through legal means. Pridiyathorn is a highly regarded economist and may, according to analysts, be slated for the finance portfolio instead.

``We just heard about it. He has not been officially approached and he cannot comment,'' Supachai's aide, Taffere Tesfachew, told The Associated Press in Cairns, Australia.

Auditor General Jaruvan Maintaka, empowered to launch investigations into government corruption that could lead to seizure of Thaksin's vast assets, told reporters she was finishing reports on the first of a dozen scandals _ the shady purchase of security scanners for Bangkok's new international airport.

The coup leader and army commander, Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who already received the king's endorsement, took part in a nationally broadcast ceremony Friday that formalized the monarch's backing.

Sondhi and other military leaders stood at attention in white uniforms as a statement from the palace was read aloud at army headquarters, recognizing Sondhi as head of the council.

Sondhi then kneeled and bowed before a shrine with a framed photo of the king, in a show of respect.

Thaksin, in London, said in his first public statement since the coup that he wanted to take a ``deserved rest'' from politics and that he did not challenge the military takeover, calming fears in an otherwise business-as-usual Bangkok that the former leader may attempt a comeback that could lead to bloodshed.

Thaksin arrived Wednesday in London from New York, where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly. The statement did not say whether he intended to make his base in London, where he owns property.

The telecommunications tycoon-turned-politician would almost certainly face some kind of legal action if he returned to Thailand.

Many Thais appear relieved at the resolution of political tensions festering since the beginning of the year, when street demonstrations accusing Thaksin of corruption and urging him to step down started growing in size and vehemence.

Critics alleged he took advantage of his position as head of government to enrich himself and his associates, and also accused the prime minister of challenging the king's authority _ an unpardonable act in the Southeast Asian nation.
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