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Thai Protesters Call Off Bangkok Demonstrations

Anti-government protesters retreated Tuesday from the streets of Bangkok, temporarily calling off their demonstrations after clashes with army soldiers in the Thailand capital left at least two people dead and dozens injured.

The decision to abandon the protests in the capital came as hundreds of heavily armed soldiers surrounded about 2,000 die-hard activists at the last protester stronghold around the prime minister's office.

"We have decided to call off the rally today because many brothers and sisters have been hurt and killed. We don't want everybody to suffer the same. And we will not allow more deaths," said key protest leader Suporn Attawong.

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On Monday, the army moved against protesters, launching tear gas at the angry crowds and firing into the air. Protesters began leaving shortly after Suporn's announcement, even as fires continued to burn in front of makeshift barricades they had erected to hold back the army.

The Associated Press quoted police officials as saying that four of the protest leaders had surrendered and would be interrogated. Later, a Thai court issued arrest warrants for 14 protest leaders, including ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who called for a "people's revolution" over the weekend and had a hand in directing the protests from his home in exile.

The demonstrators have demanded the resignation of the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was installed after his predecessor from the pro-Thaksin People Power Party was forced to step down. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup.

The protests are the latest battle pitting Thaksin and his supporters, who hail mainly from the country's largely poor, rural areas, against a coalition including Abhisit's party, which is seen as representing the interests of the wealthier urban class, as well as the military and monarchy.

Abhisit's government suffered a major embarrassment over the weekend when anti-government protesters, dressed in their symbolic red shirts to set them apart from pro-government activists who have appropriated royalist yellow as their color, broke into a summit of Asian leaders in the southern city of Pattaya. The leaders were evacuated, and the meeting was canceled.

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In November and December of last year, anti-Thaksin demonstrators had used similar tactics, occupying Bangkok's main airport and shutting down the country's vital tourism industry in an effort to force Abhisit's predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, from office.

Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said Tuesday that the red shirts' decision to abandon the protest was wise, because troops were ready to move against them. He praised the efforts of security forces, saying they used "soft means" and "prevented as much damage as possible."

The prime minister said the news that two people had been killed and 12 wounded in a gun battle Monday between protesters and residents at Nang Lerng market was "a regrettable incident." Hundreds of protesters and residents there faced off outside the market and hurled Molotov cocktails and shot at one another, police Col. Rangsan Praditpon said. It was not clear who fired first.

"The protesters were upset that the vendors were giving food and water to the soldiers and cheering them on," he said. "The vendors in the evening became more angry when protesters threatened to burn down their houses. Both sides were armed."

From NPR and wire service reports

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