BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thai military forces launched a coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra late yesterday, declaring martial law nationwide and seizing control of television stations as tanks and armed soldiers surrounded the prime minister's residence.
Retired Lt. Gen. Prapart Sakuntanak, a spokesman for coup organizers, addressed a stunned nation on television, explaining that the revolt was necessary because Thaksin's government had divided the country and corruption was rampant.
He assured the country's 63 million residents that the seizure would be temporary and power would be "returned to the people" soon.
Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who is known to be close to Thailand's king, and is a Muslim in this Buddhist-dominated nation, will be acting prime minister, an army spokesman, Col. Akara Chitroj, told the Associated Press.
The embattled prime minister, who has faced repeated calls to step down amid brewing political turmoil, was in New York at the United Nations, where he canceled a planned address to the General Assembly. He declared a state of emergency via a government-owned TV station.
A government spokesman with Thaksin claimed the coup could not succeed and assured a reporter that "we're in control." Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathia said in an interview with CNN that Thaksin was monitoring the situation from New York.
"We hope that the situation should return to normal soon because [Thaksin] is constitutionally and legally elected prime minister and this is an elected government. If there's going to be any change, it has to be through the democratic means."
Meanwhile, Thaksin phoned a Thai television station from New York to make a statement. "I declare Bangkok under a severe state of emergency," he said. Moments later, the transmission was cut while Thaksin was still talking.
The prime minister did not appear at a lunch for heads of state at the United Nations, and diplomats said that he had left town. It was unclear if he is returning to Thailand. U.S. officials said that President Bush, who is also at the United Nations, was monitoring the situation and had expressed concern over events.
By late yesterday, soldiers and tanks had surrounded Thailand's royal palace, the prime minister's office and other central government buildings in Bangkok.
King's role unclear
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is said to be deeply revered by Thais and who is recovering from a major back operation, was reportedly in the palace at the time, but it remained unclear what role, if any, he was playing in the coup.
Prem Tinnasuranoud, chief of the so-called Privy Council and a top adviser to the king, was reportedly a leading figure in the coup, along with Sondhi.
The military also had seized control of all of Thailand's television and radio stations, cutting news broadcasts of the coup. Shortly after midnight, the stations aired a statement by a spokesman for the coup, ordering people to stay in their homes and assuring them "that the army and police are in control of the situation."
This normally hectic city seemed in a state of suspended animation early today. Streets emptied as military trucks with loudspeakers ordered residents into their homes. As a light rain fell, hundreds of onlookers gathered outside Government House, the prime minister's official residence. Many cheered as a leader of the revolt passed in a limousine.
Details of the coup, Thailand's first since 1991, remain unclear.
A member of the nation's intelligence agency, who remained loyal to the prime minister and was in hiding, said an undetermined number of soldiers had remained loyal to the prime minister, but he could not provide details.
A senior military officer said Thailand's armed forces chiefs have been meeting with the king to work out an interim government, according to wire reports.
Meanwhile, army officials declared martial law, ordering all soldiers to report to base. They also banned unauthorized troop movements amid rumors that Thaksin loyalists in the armed forces might attempt a counter-coup.
In recent weeks, government officials discovered a bomb outside Thaksin's residence, suggesting an assassination attempt.
But local media have dismissed the incident as an attempt by Thaksin to curry public sympathy amid growing political discontent over issues that include the prime minister's controversial sale of his family's telecom business and unsuccessful efforts to quell an armed insurgency in the nation's predominantly Muslim southern provinces.
Karuna Buakamsri and John M. Glionna write for the Los Angeles Times.