But the promised crackdown never came despite the passing of two deadlines for the protesters to disperse.

"We will not be using force as long as the protesters remain peaceful and they conduct themselves within the law," Chalerm Yoobamrung, the interior minister, said later in the day.

Asawin Kwanmuang, Bangkok's metropolitan police chief, said police would "use soft means to persuade protesters to get off the street".

Ousted premier

Al Jazeera's Selina Downes, reporting from Bangkok, said that the protesters, led by the opposition People's Alliance Democracy (PAD), accuse the government of being a front for Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted former premier.

Somkiat Pongpaiboon, a protest leader, vowed that the group would continue to demonstrate peacefully until the government is toppled.

"But if they hurt us or violate our rights, we will defend ourselves," he said to a crowd of cheering protesters.

Some of the activists wore helmets and masks, apparently to protect themselves if force was used, while others armed themselves with wooden sticks and makeshift shields.

The protests are similar to demonstrations in October 2006 that led to the overthrow of Thaksin's government in a bloodless military coup.

Coup fears
 
The head of Thailand's army has sought to allay fears of the military stepping in.
 
General Boonsrang Niumpradit, who has a largely ceremonial role, said the army would only enforce law and order if the current protests escalate.

Samak, who is widely viewed as a proxy of Thaksin, has accused the PAD - an anti-Thaksin party which has vowed to step up the protests - of damaging the country.
 
Since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has seen at least 18 coups or coup attempts.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies