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Malaysia braces for protests against embattled PM

A few yellow-shirted protestors seen outside Central Market.

[KUALA LUMPUR] Malaysia's capital braced for possible confrontations on Saturday between demonstrators seeking the premier's ouster over corruption allegations and police who have declared their planned two-day street rally illegal.

The country's leading civil society alliance vows to turn out tens of thousands of people in Kuala Lumpur and two other cities for the weekend demonstration, which is due to kick off at 0600 GMT on Saturday.

The demonstrations by pro-reform alliance Bersih, which means "clean" in Malay, will demand the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak and wide-ranging government reforms.

Najib's cabinet ministers have admitted he received nearly US$700 million in mysterious deposits into his personal bank accounts starting in 2013, a revelation first brought to light by the Wall Street Journal last month.

Previous rallies by Bersih, formed initially to push for electoral reform, have ended in clashes with police, most recently in 2012.

Bersih in particular plans an overnight occupation of Independence Square in central Kuala Lumpur.

But tensions have steadily risen over the past week, with police saying the rally threatened stability and could upset preparations for Monday's National Day celebrations.

On Friday, authorities declared it illegal to wear clothing in Bersih's trademark yellow and bearing the rally's logo.

In a statement posted on his blog Friday, Mr Najib criticised the demonstrations as provocative, saying National Day should not be "a stage of political disputes".

But Transparency International has defended the public's right to demonstrate.

"The government of Malaysia should listen to the concerns of its people," Transparency International Chairman Jose Ugaz said in a statement Saturday.


Mr Najib's cabinet ministers say the money transfers were "political donations" from unidentified Middle Eastern sources, and that there was nothing improper.

But no further details have been given. The accounts have since been closed and the whereabouts of the money is unknown.

The status of investigations is unclear after Mr Najib recently sacked officials or absorbed into his cabinet parliamentarians who were probing the matter.

He had already been under pressure over months of allegations that huge sums had disappeared from deals involving heavily indebted state investment company 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which Najib launched in 2009.

Mr Najib and 1MDB vehemently deny wrongdoing.

The various revelations have stoked simmering public discontent with the 58-year-old ruling regime, which has seen voter support slide in recent years over its authoritarian tactics and recurring corruption scandals.

Mr Najib in particular has faced criticism for what are viewed as a series of broken reform promises.

After taking power in 2009, he vowed to tackle persistent corruption, authoritarianism, and to reform a controversial system of race-based preference for the Muslim ethnic Malays who are the multi-ethnic country's majority group.

Those initiatives are now widely viewed as discredited, or have been reversed by Mr Najib.

Exacerbating the public unease are fears that the global economic turmoil will curb Malaysian growth.

Malaysia's ringgit currency has slid to 17-year lows on the international factors and worries over domestic political uncertainty stemming from Mr Najib's troubles.

Mr Najib, who has faced signs of discontent even within his own ruling party over the graft allegations, has called them a "conspiracy" by unnamed opponents to topple him.