BANGKOK - Thailand on Tuesday extended emergency rule across about one quarter of the country by three months over lingering fears of unrest, despite calls from rights groups for the sweeping powers to be lifted.
The state of emergency, imposed in April after mass opposition protests broke out in the capital, will be maintained in Bangkok and 18 other provinces -- out of a total of 76 -- but lifted in five others, officials said.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said there were still reports of activity by the anti-government "Red Shirts", whose protests in Bangkok erupted into the country's worst political violence in decades.
"The government still needs the tools to ensure peace, order and stability for a while," he said.
The emergency law bans public gatherings of more than five people and gives security forces the right to detain suspects for 30 days without charge.
The authorities have used the powers to arrest hundreds of suspects -- including most of the top leaders of the "Red Shirt" protest movement -- and shut down anti-government TV channels, radio stations and websites.
Two months of mass anti-government rallies from mid-March by the Red Shirts, who were seeking immediate elections, sparked outbreaks of violence that left 90 people dead, mostly civilians, and nearly 1,900 injured.
The government rejected calls from the opposition for the emergency decree to be revoked in time for a parliamentary by-election in Bangkok on July 25.
A Red Shirt leader detained on charges of terrorism is running as a candidate for the opposition Puea Thai Party, which sharply criticised the decision to extend the state of emergency.
"The government has used this law as a tool to eradicate its political rivals and to silence the media," said spokesman Pormpong Nopparit.
"The government has turned a deaf ear to local and international rights groups although the situation has returned to normal and the government cannot explain why this law is necessary," he said.
Critics say the government may be fanning the crisis as it clamps down on and censors the protest movement -- which broadly supports fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra -- rather than addressing its grievances.
A leading think-tank, the International Crisis Group, voiced concern Monday that the emergency laws had empowered the Thai authorities to stifle the Red Shirts and should be lifted at once.
"While the Red Shirts have no opportunity for open and peaceful expression because of draconian laws, their legitimate frustrations are being forced underground and possibly towards illegal and violent actions," ICG said.
Thailand should lift the law "or risk further damaging its democracy, hindering much needed reconciliation, and sowing the seeds of future deadly conflict," the Brussels-based group said in a report.
After a deadly army crackdown ended their rally on May 19, enraged protesters set fire to dozens of major buildings in Bangkok.
The unrest also spread outside the capital, particularly in the Reds' stronghold in Thailand's impoverished northeast.
The five provinces where emergency rule will be lifted are Si Sa Ket, Kalasin, Nan, Nakhon Sawan and Nakhon Pathom, scattered around north, northeast and central Thailand.
The decision to lift the law in some provinces is "a signal that the government does not intend to maintain the state of emergency in the long term," said deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban.