Thai protesters abandon rally, end standoff

15th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

The dispersal is a major victory for the country’s prime minister, who had appeared on the verge of losing his hold on power after four months on the job.

Bangkok -- Thai anti-government protesters threatened with a military offensive abandoned a three-week rally at the premier's office Tuesday, pulling the kingdom back from a potentially bloody showdown in the streets.

A day after skirmishes in Bangkok left two dead and 113 injured, troops and police tightened their grip on thousands of protesters dug in around Government House, the offices of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

In the face of the overwhelming army operation, organisers agreed to disperse in a major victory for Abhisit, who had appeared on the verge of losing his hold on power after four months in the job.

"All of my brothers and sisters, please give up and board these buses provided by police," top protest leader Veera Musikapong said, clambering onto a police truck to address the crowd.

"Police will take good care of you," he said as the demoralised crowd stripped off the red shirts that have symbolised their campaign for the return of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

But as hundreds of weary demonstrators headed for home, mostly in the country's northeast that is the heartland of Thaksin's support, others defiantly said their campaign to dislodge Abhisit would continue.

"We have stopped the protest but we haven't stopped the fight for democracy. We will continue the movement," said staunch Thaksin ally Nattawut Saikuar.

Police and the army said that protesters not involved in Monday's street violence would be allowed to return home but that "hardcore" figures were being detained, with protest leaders facing imminent arrest.

The government had said it wanted a peaceful end to the crisis, after troops Monday used tear gas and automatic weapons fire to clear demonstrators from the rest of Bangkok, which remains under a state of emergency.

As dawn broke Tuesday, hundreds of soldiers brandishing assault rifles and riot shields advanced on Government House, and armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles blocked off all access points.

The military used loudspeakers mounted on trucks to issued further warnings to disperse or face the consequences.

The number of protesters at the site fell to around 2,500 overnight as the pressure mounted on Thaksin's so-called "Red Shirts" after hours of running battles in sweltering heat the day before.

Army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said troops had also suppressed protests in three provinces on Monday, during which demonstrators took control of a television station and a railway terminal.

Abhisit has hailed the success of the military campaign to dislodge the protesters, amid fears of a repeat of the violence in Bangkok last October in which two people died and 500 were injured.

He was under huge pressure to end the crisis quickly to prevent further damage to Thailand's international image, after years of unrest following the military coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006.

Several countries advised tourists not to travel to Thailand or to exercise caution if they are already there, while the US State Department condemned the "unacceptable violence" by the protesters.

Bangkok emergency services confirmed Tuesday that the toll from clashes between security forces, demonstrators and local residents stood at two dead and 113 wounded, 44 of whom were still in hospital.

On Monday, troops unleashed volleys of gunfire and hurled tear gas at the protesters, who sent buses hurtling towards lines of soldiers and torched a government ministry with petrol bombs.

The protesters were forced to retreat to Government House where, as night fell, residents erected roadblocks and armed themselves with guns and swords, setting the stage for a deadly confrontation with the Red Shirts.

The Red Shirts want Abhisit to quit and call new elections, saying he came to power through an undemocratic parliamentary vote following a court ruling that drove Thaksin's allies from office.

Analysts say there is little hope of a long-term solution to Thailand's problems so long as it remains divided between Thaksin's mostly poor supporters and his foes in the power circles of the palace, military and bureaucracy.

Boonradom Chitradon/AFP/Expatica

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