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Thai PM returns to Bangkok as protest showdown looms

Embattled Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra returned to the capital, Bangkok, on Wednesday for traditional New Year celebrations in a display of unity alongside military chiefs before a looming showdown with anti-government protesters.

Demonstrators who accuse Yingluck of being the puppet of her self-exiled brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, have vowed to occupy government ministries and other key sites in Bangkok in their bid to scuttle a snap February 2 election.

(Read more: Thai Prime Minister calls snap election)

The protests since late November have pitted the brother and sister's political machine with its base among the rural poor in the north against Bangkok's conservative elite.

Anti-government protesters cheers during a New Year celebration at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Jan 1, 2014.Piti A Sahakorn | LightRocket| Getty Images

It has flared into sporadic violence, and army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha refused to rule out a coup after wild clashes outside an election registration center a week ago. Three people have been killed since Thursday.

Yingluck, who is caretaker leader after calling the snap poll in a bid to defuse the crisis, had spent more than a week outside Bangkok shoring up support in the north but returned to the capital early on Wednesday.

She joined Prayuth and other senior military leaders in paying their respects to retired general Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's Privy Council. Prayuth's warning last week was a sobering reminder that the military has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years.

(Read more: Thai military sees role in ensuring 'fair' election)

In a New Year message aired overnight, Thailand's revered King Bhumibol urged peace, prosperity and unity among Thais.

"Everyone's wishes do not seem to be very different, either for their own sake or for the peace of the country," he said.

Wednesday's largely ceremonial duties were a prelude to what are shaping as rougher days ahead for Yingluck, whose Puea Thai Party normally would be expected to win the election.

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