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Thai riot police move to reclaim key offices and clear anti-government protesters

BANGKOK - Hundreds of riot police moved through parts of the Thai capital on Friday to retake areas occupied by anti-government protesters during a three-month push to unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Helmeted police with riot shields tore down sandbagged barriers blocking a major boulevard near the prime minister's office compound, known as Government House, which has been closed since December as protesters camped nearby. The area in the capital's historic quarter is one of several Bangkok neighbourhoods where demonstrators occupied major intersections and forced government ministries to shut down and work elsewhere.

There was no immediate sign of resistance from protesters, who abandoned the site and regrouped elsewhere before police arrived.

The protesters are demanding that Yingluck's administration be replaced by a non-elected "people's council" which would implement reforms they say are needed to end corruption and money politics.

Protesters have battled police on several occasions, and have been targeted in several attacks for which no one has been apprehended. At least 10 people have been killed and scores injured in connection with the protests, Thailand's biggest anti-government street rallies in years.

As police entered the protest zone, they called for co-operation through a megaphone: "It is necessary for the police to clear this area.... For your own safety please strictly follow police instructions."

The police tore down tents and searched for weapons. Authorities said they confiscated slingshots, firecrackers and a variety of materials they said could be used for explosives, including a small bag of urea, metal objects and other items.

Until now, police had avoided dispersing demonstrators for fear of unleashing greater violence.

Friday's operation, which came on a national holiday when offices were closed, marked the first time in three months that police had successfully entered and cleared a protest area. But the significance of reclaiming one street was not immediately clear given the protesters' continued occupation of several areas in central Bangkok.

Thailand has been wracked by political unrest since 2006 when Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by a military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Since then, his supporters and opponents have vied for power, sometimes violently.

The conflict pits the Bangkok-based middle- and upper-class and southerners who disdain Yingluck against the poor, rural majority who support her and have benefited from populist policies including virtually free health care.

In a bid to defuse the crisis, Yingluck dissolved Parliament in December and called for elections that were held earlier this month. But the elections were boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party, which backs the protesters.

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