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Farmers call off Bangkok airport protest; vow to return if gov't doesn't make rice payments

Anti-government protesters block traffic in front of the Thai Customs Department in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014. Angry farmers driving hundreds of tractors have called off a threatened protest at Thailand's main airport after the embattled government agreed to make long-delayed payments on last year's rice crops by next week. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

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Anti-government protesters block traffic in front of the Thai Customs Department in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014. Angry farmers driving hundreds of tractors have called off a threatened protest at Thailand's main airport after the embattled government agreed to make long-delayed payments on last year's rice crops by next week. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

BANGKOK - Angry farmers driving hundreds of tractors called off a threatened protest at Thailand's main airport Friday, offering a reprieve to the country's embattled prime minister and to travellers fearing a repeat of a major 2008 blockade of the airport.

The farmers cancelled the protest at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport after striking a last-minute deal with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who agreed to make long-delayed payments on last year's rice crops by next week. They vowed, however, to stage the protest next week if the payments are not made.

The farmers' protest is one of many headaches for Yingluck, who appears increasingly powerless against a wider anti-government movement pressing for her resignation. Protesters have camped out with virtual impunity for weeks at major intersections of Bangkok and near the Government House compound. Yingluck has been forced to work out of a variety of alternate offices since December.

The anti-government demonstrators, who have been protesting for three months, draw most of their support from the urban middle and upper classes and residents from the south who are loyal to the opposition Democrat Party. They want Yingluck's elected government to make way for an interim, appointed government to implement what they say are necessary reforms to fight corruption.

Yingluck faces a possible impeachment vote over accusations by the National Anti-Corruption Commission that she improperly handled an expensive rice subsidy program.

Under the program — a flagship policy of Yingluck's administration that helped win the votes of millions of farmers — the government bought Thailand's staple grain at above-market prices. But the program has accumulated losses of at least $4.46 billion and has been dogged by corruption allegations.

Thailand's farmers have been paid 65 billion baht ($2 billion) for last year's crops, but are still owed 110 billion baht ($3.39 billion).

Friday's deal did not cover payments to farmers nationwide, but just to those from the central province of Uthai Thani who headed to Bangkok on hundreds of tractors this week and threatened to park outside Suvarnabhumi Airport. They had said they didn't intend to block the airport, but Suvarnabhumi officials said the presence of hundreds of tractors was bound to cause disruptions.

"I've talked to (Yingluck) and we agreed that the government will urgently pay 3 billion baht ($92.2 million) to the Uthai Thani farmers next week," protest leader Chada Thaised was quoted as saying by Matichon newspaper.

"If the promise is not kept, we will come back," Chada said.

It was unclear how the debt-ridden government would secure money for the farmers.

The farmers have previously blocked main highways in several parts of the country, and earlier this week breached razor-wire barricades outside one of Yingluck's temporary offices.

The threatened protest at Suvarnabhumi Airport has deep resonance in Thailand, with anti-government demonstrators shutting down the facility for more than a week in 2008, stranding hundreds of thousands of travellers.

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