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Thai demonstrators back off as Asian nations meet on economy

THOUSANDS of anti-government protesters retreated yesterday after an all-day standoff with soldiers in riot gear at an Asian summit in Thailand, but vowed to return today unless the Thai prime minister resigns.

The protests threatened to disrupt a gathering of leaders from 16 Asian nations, including China and Japan, aimed at tackling the global financial crisis and boosting trade within the region.

Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has repeatedly refused to step down, said the summit would continue as planned.

"I would like to stress that we can provide security and ensure that these meetings will proceed smoothly," he told a news conference.

The face-off between about 2,000 red-shirted protesters and several hundred soldiers was the latest episode in Thailand's long-running political crisis and an embarrassment for the country, coming less than five months after Bangkok's airports were shut for a week by a rival group of protesters.

Leaders from Southeast Asian nations were arriving safely at the summit venue, Abhisit said. But delegates to the meeting sought ways to avoid the protesters, who erected roadblocks on the routes up to the hilltop convention center in Pattaya, a beach-side town about 140 kilometers southeast of Bangkok, the capital. Some were forced to walk along the beach in their suits and dress shoes to reach the venue.

Despite their retreat last evening, the demonstrators said they might return.

"We have made our point. This government is illegitimate," said Arisman Pongreungrong, a protest leader. "We will return tomorrow if our demands are not met."

Deputy National Police Chief Wiroj Pahonvej estimated there were 2,000 protesters. He said earlier that about 8,000 officers, including riot police, had been deployed in Pattaya.

Abhisit arrived at the Pattaya Exhibition and Convention Center by helicopter yesterday, a government spokesman said.

On Thursday, the demonstrators, whose numbers swelled to 100,000 in recent days, brought areas of Bangkok to a standstill, blocking a main intersection and other parts of the capital.

The summit, which began yesterday morning with a meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, gets into full swing today when ASEAN leaders meet with their counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea.

The meetings conclude tomorrow with the full-fledged East Asia Summit, which also includes India, Australia and New Zealand for a total of 16 nations. With Asia's export-dependent economies reeling, the primary focus of the meeting is coping with the global slowdown, although the recent rocket launch by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is likely to come up.


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