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Thai Protest Leaders Call Halt After Rioting, Deadly Clash

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BANGKOK — Police issued arrest warrants Tuesday for 14 leaders of an anti-government movement, including ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as protesters abruptly ended violent demonstrations in Thailand's capital.

A day after red-shirted protesters burned buses and seized intersections in clashes with police and soldiers that left two people dead and 123 injured, their leaders called it quits, urging a group of 2,000 die-hard demonstrators to go home.

The swift and unexpected resolution headed off the possibility of a confrontation with heavily armed troops massing around the demonstrators' encampment near the seat of government. Dispirited protesters quietly boarded government buses watched over by soldiers.

But few expected it was the end of a rural-based movement that has shown the ability to mobilize 100,000 protesters and cause the cancellation of a regional summit in its campaign seeking to force out a government dominated by urban elements and hold new elections.

Charnvit Kasetsiri, one of Thailand's most prominent historians, said the "political convulsion" may be over for now, but the underlying tensions between the rural poor and urban elite highlighted during the demonstrations remain.

"The government has underestimated the wrath of rural and marginalized people and that is partly why they have not made enough effort to reach out to heal the rift. Without addressing that, this is not going to be the last riot," he said.

The demonstrations were a mirror of mass protests by urban groups last year that snarled Bangkok until the courts removed a government led by Thaksin's allies who were elected on the strength of rural voters.

The appointment of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva further angered many rural people, who were already upset by a 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin, and their disenchantment blew up into their own protest movement.

Three of the 14 protest leaders were in police custody, metropolitan police spokesman Suporn Pansua said, and the Bangkok Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for 11 others, including Thaksin, who went into self-imposed exile last year before a court convicted him of violating a conflict of interest law.

The warrants accuse the protest leaders of creating a public disturbance and engaging in illegal assembly, which carry prison terms of up to seven and three years, respectively.

"This is not a victory or a loss of any particular group," Abhisit said in a televised address. "If it is victory, it is victory of society that peace and order has returned."

But he warned that the threat from the red-clad protesters was not over.

"The operation under the state of emergency is not completed. There are still things to do," he said. "There are still protesters in some areas. The only difference is they aren't wearing red anymore."

The government announced it was adding two more days to the three-day Thai New Year holiday, which began Monday, to ensure safety and allow time for repairing damage from the violence.

Some protesters threatened to regroup after the arrest warrants were issued. About 200 protesters took off their red shirts but gathered in a field near Government House late Tuesday. They were closely monitored by soldiers patrolling the area but no clash was reported.

Jakrapob Penkair, a protest leader who had not turned himself in, said the movement "will continue fighting." He did not specify what action they would take next.

Thaksin, considered by most protesters to be their leader, had addressed the demonstrators via video nearly every evening.

Siri Kadmai, a 45-year-old protester who was wearing buttons and a T-shirt expressing love for the former prime minister, insisted the movement had not lost the fight but was making a strategic withdrawal in the face of the power of security forces.

"We were only in a disadvantageous position," Siri said as she waited to board a bus. "We only have hearts. We don't have weapons."

Still, many protesters looked broken, almost in shock that their dreams of revolution unraveled so quickly. Their leaders called off the demonstrations Tuesday morning following warnings that the army was ready to move against them.

Most of the demonstrators, anxious about their safety, packed their bags and began leaving. Crowds lined up for soldiers, showed their identification cards and were led to buses waiting to take them home. There were no confrontations with the troops nor any visible anger. The buses were gone by 2 p.m.

The protests were only the latest in a long-simmering conflict _ set off by Thaksin's removal from power in a 2006 coup _ that has split many Thais into two groups.

The "red shirts" are mostly Thaksin supporters drawn largely from the impoverished countryside where he is popular for his populist policies.

On the other side are the "yellow shirts," who brought the country to a halt last year by occupying Government House and Bangkok's airports. Those demonstrations, led by a mix of royalists, academics, professionals and retired military who think the poor aren't educated enough to vote, only broke up after court rulings removed Thaksin's allies from power.

The pro-Thaksin protesters have made their voices heard and their presence felt, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"Now, no one would ever underestimate the power of the red-shirt protesters," he said. "They may say, 'We give up,' but we don't know when they will regroup and strike again."