Thousands of Thai riot police were deployed on Friday to seize back protest sites around government buildings in Bangkok that have been occupied for months by demonstrators seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Anti-government protesters have been disrupting life in the Thai capital since November, trying to oust Yingluck. They view her as a proxy for her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-exiled former premier who clashed with the establishment before he was overthrown by the army in a 2006 coup.
"Our police are ready to reclaim space and will try to avoid violence," National Security Council Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told Reuters.
Paradorn said 5,000 police had been assigned to the operation, which was targeting sites around the government district rather than intersections in the shopping and business centres that have been the focus of the biggest rallies.
The protests have pitted the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of the Shinawatras from the north and northeast.
Police had until now largely avoided confronting the protesters, although 11 people have been killed and hundreds hurt in sporadic flare-ups. The past week has been quiet, with numbers dwindling at protest sites dotted around Bangkok.
A Reuters witness said there was no violence as at least 1,000 police cleared protesters from a site stretching from Royal Plaza to the United Nations headquarters. A few of the officers were armed but most carried just batons and shields.
Some protesters hurled abuse but otherwise police met no resistance in a historic area of the capital that includes Government House and the Metropolitan Police headquarters, scenes of violent clashes in November and December.
The area is not one of the largest sites occupied by the main protest group, the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), and in recent weeks it has been held by a small hard core from an allied movement.
Bluesky TV, the PDRC television channel that broadcasts the fiery speeches of the movement's leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, showed pictures of police massing near another protest site by a government complex in northern Bangkok that has been Yingluck's temporary headquarters since the crisis began.
Eight years of turmoil
An election on February 2 failed to break the deadlock in Thailand, a country popular with tourists and investors but blighted by eight years of polarization and turmoil.
Protesters blocked voting in a fifth of constituencies, a result that left parliament without a quorum to approve a new government and Yingluck's Puea Thai Party limping on as a caretaker administration with limited powers.
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The deadlock has raised concerns about the long-term impact on an already weakening economy, with the caretaker government unable to approve spending on new infrastructure projects that would have supported growth.
The protesters are demanding that Yingluck resigns and makes way for an appointed "people's council" to overhaul a political system they say has been taken hostage by Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire who shook up Thai politics in the early 2000s with populist policies that harnessed the support of the populous but previously neglected north and northeast.
Thailand's army chief appealed for calm on Thursday ahead of a long holiday weekend, while reiterating that the coup-prone military was resolved to stay neutral.
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Protest leaders had urged supporters to come out in force over the weekend, and were planning "Love Thailand and Break-up with the Thaksin Regime" events in Bangkok on Friday, Valentine's Day, which coincides with a Buddhist holiday.
Rumours had swept Bangkok late on Thursday that the police planned to retake parts of the capital ceded to the protesters. "Police said they will disperse protesters ... We must prepare ourselves to fight back," PDRC leader Suthep said in a speech at one of the main protest sites on Thursday night.