BANGKOK: Thousands of riot police were deployed in the Thai capital on Friday to clear areas occupied for weeks by opposition protesters seeking to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office.
The operation marked an unexpected shift in tactics by the embattled government, which has allowed the protesters to camp out at locations around Bangkok.
Police with shields and riot helmets, some carrying rifles, met little resistance as they re-took areas around Government House, which Yingluck had been unable to use for about two months.
Security forces removed protesters’ tents and tore down their makeshift defences built from barbed wire, sandbags and piles of rubber tyres. Police warned demonstrators through a loudspeaker not to resist.
But it was unclear if the operation was a success as demonstrators were later seen rebuilding barricades after police withdrew.
Labor Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who oversaw the operation, said officials would return to work at Government House on Monday.
He said sling-shots, illegal drugs and bomb-making materials were discovered at the rally site.
“Protesters—you should return home,” Chalerm said in a televised national address from the government headquarters.
“If you’re still stubborn we will gently enforce the law,” he added. “The police are ready to disperse protesters but the prime minister told us not to use force to avoid loss of life.”
There were no reports of serious clashes. Two people were slightly injured by what appeared to be a firecracker during a brief confrontation between police and protesters.
The security operation was focused on the government district rather than major intersections in the commercial center that have become the main focus of the rallies in recent weeks as part of what protesters have described as the “Bangkok shutdown.”
So far the authorities have not announced any plan to clear those intersections, where hundreds of protesters are gathered. The leaders of the anti-government movement had called for a big two-day rally starting on Friday.
But there are plans to re-take several other sites including the interior ministry, National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattana–tabut said, adding that officials would attempt to negotiate with the demonstrators first.
“We will re-take wherever we can and arrest protest leaders,” he said. “It’s not a crackdown on the protests—it’s enforcement of the law over the protest sites.”