BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand's government backed off Friday from its threat to forcibly remove protesters occupying Bangkok's two airports, dashing hopes of a quick resolution to a standoff that has stranded thousands of travelers and tarnished the country's image.
Government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kau said police would avoid violence and attempt to negotiate with the protesters of the People's Alliance for Democracy, which has been campaigning for months to oust the government.
Police have been instructed to get the protesters out of airports "as soon as possible" in a "peaceful manner," Nattawut told The Associated Press.
"Firstly, the police should open negotiation with the protesters. If they refuse to go, police should do whatever is necessary to open the airports on the basis of nonviolence," he said.
The comments came hours after Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared a state of emergency at the Bangkok airports, authorizing police to take back the terminals that signaled an imminent crackdown.
The protesters occupied the main international Suvarnabhumi airport on Tuesday and the secondary Don Muang airport on Wednesday, forcing both facilities to be shut down indefinitely. All flights to the airports have been canceled, leaving the capital completely cut off to air traffic and stranding thousands of local and foreign travelers.
Among those stranded are Thai Muslims planning to go on pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia this week. Thai Airways said it will arrange a special flight for about 250 pilgrims from Hat Yai in southern Thailand later Friday. More such flights are planned, said Narongsak Sangapong, a senior airline official.
On Friday, there was no sign of police at the airport. Cleaning crews in uniforms were seen going into the terminal, wading their way through hundreds of protesters camped inside and outside the building, to clear garbage piling up.
"We were instructed by the government not to use any violent force against protesters. We will definitely follow the instructions strictly," said national police chief Kowit Wattana.
The government's unwillingness to deploy security forces has raised doubts about whether Somchai has the support of police and the army, a powerful institution that has traditionally played a key role in the country's politics.
Army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda has so far been neutral in the political turmoil, and even urged Somchai to call new elections, triggering speculation of a military coup.The whispers were further fueled by press reports Thursday of tank movements that the military later said were only a training exercise.
In an address to the nation Thursday night to announce the emergency, Somchai said that navy and air force personnel would help the police, but was vague about any participation by the army, saying only the government would also ask the army "to help take care of the people."
The emergency measures also empower the government to suspend some civil liberties, including restricting the movement of people and prohibiting mass assembly.
Emergency was declared once before in the three months since the protesters seized the prime minister's office, but there was no move to take advantage of its provisions, apparently because the army was reluctant to take on the alliance, which at the time enjoyed greater popularity.
The protesters remained defiant on Friday.
"We are ready to defend ourselves against any government's operations to get us out of those places," Parnthep Wongpuapan, a spokesman of the People's Alliance for Democracy, told the AP.
"We are going to stay at the airports until Somchai resigns," he said.
Protesters at the international airport donned goggles and helmets, and first aid stations handed out surgical masks in anticipation of a police raid. The group's "guards" were patrolling the area with slingshots and metal batons. Many also carry concealed handguns.
Speakers from a makeshift stage repeatedly yelled: "Are you scared?" The crowd roared back: "We're not scared!"
They alliance's protest grew out of its hatred of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a brother-in-law of Somchai. Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless military coup in September 2006 after months of protests by the alliance.
It accused Thaksin and his allies of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law. The group says Somchai is merely a Thaksin puppet and should go.
However, Somchai has stood his ground, saying his departure would be a blow to democracy.
In his televised address, Somchai accused the alliance of "holding the country hostage and the public hostage." Somchai has been in the pro-government stronghold of Chiang Main in the north since he returned from a summit in Peru on Wednesday.
The protests, which gathered pace three months ago when demonstrators overran the prime minister's offices, have paralyzed the government, battered the stock market, spooked foreign investors and dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry.
The Bangkok Post quoted experts as saying that the damage from the airport shutdown could range between $3.7 billion and $6 billion if the standoff extends to December. The meeting and convention business has already suffered losses of $310 million, it said.