Bangkok (AFP) - Thai police on Tuesday abandoned their defence of the government headquarters against a siege by protesters trying to topple the prime minister, a dramatic move that eased tensions before the revered king's birthday.
Several days of street battles gave way to hugs and smiles after police said they would no longer use force against protesters trying to storm Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's offices as well as the city police headquarters.
The sudden change in tactics, after violent clashes between stone-throwing mobs and police firing tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets, came as the nation prepares on Thursday to celebrate King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 86th birthday.
"There's a mutual understanding that everything must be calm and orderly on this auspicious day," National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabut told AFP.
"It's a positive sign and talks could be held after the king's birthday. It will take time to solve the problem by negotiation," he added.
The protests, aimed at unseating Yingluck's government and replacing it with an unelected "people's council", are the latest bout of unrest in the kingdom since royalist generals ousted the premier's brother Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup seven years ago.
Four people have been killed and about 250 wounded in the street violence since Saturday, according to the city's Erawan emergency centre.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier, told supporters the fight to unseat the government was not over, in comments that suggested tensions could flare anew after the king's birthday.
"It's a partial victory but it's not final because the Thaksin regime is still in place. You cannot go back home yet. We have to continue our struggle," said the former deputy premier, who faces an arrest warrant for insurrection.
At an evening rally Suthep said protesters would march on the national police headquarters in Bangkok's main shopping district on Wednesday, but suggested they would pause to celebrate the king's birthday the following day.
Thailand's long-running political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based elite backed by the military and the palace against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin, a billionaire businessman turned populist politician.
'We are all Thais'
Protesters insist Thaksin is still controlling Yingluck from his exile overseas.
In the latest twist, demonstrators were unexpectedly allowed to approach and later enter the grounds of Government House with no resistance from security forces. They massed in the compound for about an hour before leaving.
Several thousand protesters, many still wearing face masks and protective goggles against the threat of tear gas, also streamed into the Metropolitan (city) Police headquarters where they were seen shaking hands with officers. A bulldozer was used to remove the barricades.
"There will be no use of tear gas today," Metropolitan Police chief Lieutenant General Kamronwit Thoopkrajang told AFP. "If we resist there will be more injuries, and we are all Thais."
The sudden turn of events caught even the demonstrators by surprise.
"I'm not sure but I think we have won now," said Thanapatr Wiriyongatham, a 24-year-old politics student who was wearing a life jacket and clutching a dented cupboard door used as a makeshift shield against rubber bullets.
"We will stop for the king's birthday. If Yingluck is still here we will fight again."
It is the kingdom's worst political violence since a deadly military crackdown on pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" in 2010, although the recent clashes have been largely confined to certain parts of the city, away from main tourist districts.
In a short televised address to the nation on Tuesday, Yingluck said talks were needed between the different sectors of society to find a long-term solution.
"Although the current political situation has not completely returned to normal, there has been substantial progress. The government has asked both the army and police to carry out their duty with leniency and refrain from confrontation and violence that would cause casualties among the public," she said.
The rallies were triggered by an amnesty bill, since abandoned by the ruling party, which opponents feared would have allowed Thaksin to return to his home country. He fled in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction he contends is politically motivated.
The demonstrators are a mix of royalists, Thaksin opponents, students and supporters of the opposition Democrat Party, which has not won an election in 20 years.
While the numbers have fallen sharply since an estimated 180,000 people joined an opposition rally on November 24, protesters have besieged a number of major government buildings in what some observers believe is an attempt to provoke a military putsch.
But the military, which has staged several coups down the years, has appeared reluctant to intervene in the current standoff.