Riot police managed to clear anti-government protesters from a major boulevard in the Thai capital in a small but brief victory Friday, as authorities try to reclaim areas that have been closed during a three-month push to unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Hundreds of helmeted police with riot shields met no resistance as they dismantled a sprawling protest camp in Bangkok's historic quarter near the prime minister's office compound, known as Government House. The office has been closed since December by protesters camped nearby.
Faced with the prospect of clashing with militant protesters coming from other sites to reclaim the area, police later withdrew, allowing demonstrators to occupy the street again. By evening, tents were back up in the area. Police also retreated from another protest venue after hundreds of demonstrators refused to leave.
But the police action was the first major pushback against the demonstrators and was accomplished without violence, a key to holding the high moral ground. In past clashes with police, protesters highlighted injuries in their ranks for propaganda purposes, even though both sides have used force.
The operation, which came on a national holiday when offices were closed, marked the first time in three months that police have successfully entered and cleared a protest area. But the protesters continue to occupy several areas in central Bangkok.
Police moved in as the total number of full-time protesters dwindled sharply to about 5,000 from more than 150,000 late last year, according to police estimates.
"The prime minister asked us to deal with the protesters gently," said Chalerm Yubumrung, the head of the government's special command center to oversee security. He called Friday's operation "an example" of what authorities plan to do at other protest sites.
"We are telling the protesters to go home. If they do not listen, we will push more," he told reporters at a news conference held inside Government House for the first time since December.
The protesters are demanding that Yingluck's administration be replaced by a non-elected "people's council," which would implement reforms they say are needed to end corruption and money politics. They have battled police on several occasions, and have been targeted in several attacks for which no one has been apprehended.
Protesters have battled police on several occasions, and have been targeted in several attacks for which no one has been apprehended. At least 10 people have been killed and scores injured in connection with the protests, Thailand's biggest anti-government street rallies in years.
Thailand has been wracked by political unrest since 2006 when Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by a military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Since then, his supporters and opponents have vied for power, sometimes violently.
In a bid to defuse the crisis, Yingluck dissolved Parliament in December and called for elections that were held earlier this month. But the elections were boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party, which backs the protesters.
Al Jazeera and wire services