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Thailand: Foreign-trained assassination squads?

Thai authorities warn of a terror cell grown deep in the Cambodian jungle.

Red Shirt Thailand Government Thaksin
Red Shirt anti-government protesters dressed in military uniforms perform a mock clash during a protest in Chiang Mai on Sept. 19, 2010. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — In a year rife with allegations of political terror, Thai authorities have leveled their most alarming to date: A terror cell, trained in Cambodian jungle camps, is out to assassinate Thailand’s prime minister and his inner circle.

Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation, akin to the U.S. FBI, claims to have intercepted a circle of Thai guerillas schooled in firing assault rifles and planting explosives.

Their alleged targets: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, his deputy, other high-profile politicians and a senior police official, according to special investigator Lt. Col. Payao Thongsen.

The government links this plot to radicals among the “Red Shirts,” an anti-establishment faction that ringed central Bangkok with bamboo staves and barbed wire this spring, piled in supporters and vowed to remain until the government held new elections.

Though the group’s leadership is largely in prison or fleeing custody, officials have publicly fretted that the squashed movement may re-emerge as an organized, armed resistance.

This year alone, Bangkok has suffered a mysterious bombing campaign with more than 110 explosives planted, 71 of which successfully detonated, police say. Though no faction takes credit for the attacks, Thailand’s army chief openly points to Red Shirt supporters as the perpetrators.

Still, the terror cell allegations don’t signal the birth of an Irish Republican Army-style resistance, said government spokesman Buranaj Smutharaks. “Quite the contrary. They’re more along the lines of hired mercenaries,” he said. “It’s probably funded by a small group of individuals.”

The Red Shirts’ April-May rallies in Bangkok, initially attracting 150,000 people, were billed as a working-class wake-up call to so-called “elites” unwilling to let the working poor elect a new wave of Thai leaders.

The army eventually crashed their camp with guns blazing, leaving more than 90 dead and nearly 2,000 wounded. The government justified the crackdown as a last resort against a movement tilting towards violent revolution.

Few among the rallies appeared to be armed with much more than slingshots and molotov cocktails. But in one nighttime army raid, masked men emerged to defend the camp with assault rifles, killing a colonel and several soldiers. Protesters then snatched up troops’ guns and destroyed six armed personnel carriers with simple tools and their bare hands.

Troops also reported taking fire when clearing protesters from their entrenched position along Bangkok’s swankiest shopping avenue. The cell’s discovery is a breakthrough, Buranaj said, in searching for this “armed militia” that traded gunfire with soldiers.

However, some circles are countering the allegations with a demand for hard proof, namely the Cambodian government. Cambodian spokesmen have described the claims as a “made-up story” and “rubbish.”