Thai police retreats from prime minister's office compound

Thai police retreated from the prime minister's office compound Friday afternoon, seeking to defuse tensions with thousands of protesters who have occupied the site for nearly four days.

Earlier Friday, tensions escalated when police muscled into the site to deliver a court eviction order to the members of the People's Alliance for Democracy, who are seeking the ouster of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

Several minor injuries were reported throughout the day as brief skirmishes erupted around the perimeter of the compound and in nearby streets.

"The situation was very volatile and a clash was likely if we pushed on," police spokesman Surapol Tuantong told the NBT TV network. "We have given way to let them back into the Government House to prevent a clash. All security forces have left the government compound."

Samak repeated his pledge to end the crisis without the use of force, and the commander of the Thai army called for both sides to negotiate an end to the standoff.

"The army will not stage a coup, the political crisis should be resolved by political means," said Gen. Anupong Paochinda.

The crowd outside the compound swelled Friday afternoon. When the police pulled back, many demonstrators followed them to a horse racing track about 500 meters (yards) from the Government House.

Sonthi Limthongkul, a protest leader, vowed Friday to continue the protests until Samak steps down.

"We definitely won't leave the Government House until we can topple Samak's administration," Sonthi told The Associated Press. "He cannot stay on for long, I am very sure of that. You can see people coming more and more to join us."

Sonti promised that the alliance would install a "clean and efficient political system."

The alliance accuses Samak's government of serving as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and faces several pending corruption cases. Thaksin is in self-imposed exile in Britain.

Alliance sympathizers also staged actions in other parts of the country, in an apparent effort to create an atmosphere of crisis.

More than 200 railway workers staged a work stoppage by taking emergency sick leave, forcing the cancellation of 35 trains from Bangkok to major provinces, said State Railways of Thailand spokesman Pairat Rojcharoen-ngarm.

Protesters also tried to blockade passengers from entering at least two airports in southern Thailand, said witnesses, though the facilities at Hat Yai and the popular tourist destination of Phuket remained operating. But airline authorities said flights from Hat Yai would be suspended Friday evening.

Alliance leaders had earlier boasted that state enterprise unions would act in support of their action, and protest leaders cited the rail stoppages Friday as an example of such action.

The number of protesters in and around the government compound since protesters overran the grounds on Tuesday has varied from a few thousand most mornings to a high of 30,000.

The alliance promised a "final showdown" this week, but has suffered several setbacks. It sent several dozen masked thugs Tuesday to take over a government-controlled television station. The band surrendered to police and video of the bullying tactics were broadcast repeatedly.

By sending followers into the streets Friday, they apparently meant to provoke violent clashes to regain public sympathy. State enterprise unions and other sympathizers of the protest group decried "police brutality," though authorities seemed to exercise restraint as demonstrators rushed to confront them. No weapons were fired.

Arrest warrants were issued Wednesday for nine of the group's leaders on charges of insurrection, conspiracy, illegal assembly and refusing orders to disperse. Insurrection, the legal equivalent of treason, carries a maximum penalty of death or life imprisonment.

Another court issued an order late Wednesday demanding that the protesters leave the government compound immediately and stop blocking streets. On Thursday, a court rejected the alliance's appeal of the order to vacate Government House, which was seized Tuesday.

Prime Minister Samak, who refuses to resign, has accused the protesters of trying to provoke violence.

After Thaksin was deposed in the bloodless coup, his party was dissolved and he was banned from public office until 2012.

But Samak led Thaksin's political allies to a December 2007 election victory, and their assumption of power triggered fears that Thaksin would make a political comeback on the strength of his continued popularity in Thailand's rural majority.

Thailand has had 17 constitutions since 1932 - a reflection of the political instability and military coups that followed the drafting of the first charter that created a constitutional monarchy. The last coup was in 2006, when Thaksin was ousted.

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