x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Flights resume from Thai airports

Hundreds of anti-government protesters left Bangkok's main airport today after an eight-day siege.

Passengers leave a Thai Airways flight from Phuket, at Suvarnabhumi International Airport on Dec 3 2008 in Bangkok, Thailand.
Passengers leave a Thai Airways flight from Phuket, at Suvarnabhumi International Airport on Dec 3 2008 in Bangkok, Thailand.

Charter flights ferried home more frustrated tourists from Thailand and the wealthy escaped on private jets as the end of an airport siege today raised hopes for thousands of stranded travellers. Carriers gradually resumed international and domestic flights to and from Bangkok's main Suvarnabhumi international airport after protesters ended their blockade, with full operations expected tomorrow, officials said. Airlines provided extra planes to rescue nationals from among an estimated 350,000 tourists stranded after the protest against the government of Somchai Wongsawat shut down Suvarnabhumi airport. Australia's foreign minister Stephen Smith said today that Australian carriers had taken more than 1,000 people home from Phuket over the past 72 hours, and warned travellers to think twice before visiting the country. "We're still in very close contact with Qantas to see whether there's an ongoing need for extra and special flights," Mr Smith said, shortly before the anti-government protesters ended their eight-day siege. The first regular Thai Airways flight to Sydney was due to leave at 7.50 pm local time. The airline said the passengers would have to check in at a convention centre east of Bangkok, where temporary desks were set up. Vudhibhandhu Vichairatana, chairman of the board of Airports of Thailand, said that full operations would resume at Suvarnabhumi tomorrow. Flights had been landing at the U-Tapao naval base southeast of Bangkok, which has been standing in as the main exit point for travellers, some of whom have also been escaping from Chiang Mai in the north. In Japan, All Nippon Airways said it would operate one last flight today from U-Tapao while Japan Airlines (JAL) said it would operate two flights tomorrow. For Dec 5, "nothing has been decided. We will plan according to developments on the ground as well as safety conditions", said JAL spokesman Hisanori Iizuka. Hong Kong's government drew criticism, meanwhile, after revealing that flights chartered to pick up stranded visitors in Thailand returned mostly empty, newspapers reported today. Four government-chartered flights had been sent since Monday, but only 190 passengers registered for the first three, which offered about 700 seats for Hong Kong residents, the secretary for security Ambrose Lee reportedly said. Sri Lanka operated special flights to U-Tapao and evacuated all its 378 nationals stranded in the country, acting foreign minister Hussein Bhaila said today. France, Spain, China, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam have also sent special flights over recent days to evacuate desperate citizens. As most grumbling holiday-makers wait frustrated in hotels, charter airline companies have seen their bookings soar as wealthy tourists and business travellers chose simply to slip out by private jet from U-Tapao. "Since the closing of the airports, travellers are seeking out our service, despite the premium costs," said Sukit Kaewamorn, marketing manager at air charter company Siam Land Flying. "Many of those passengers come to us because they have few choices. They want to catch any flights just to take them out of Thailand." The flights resume after hundreds of anti-government protesters left Bangkok's main airport today after an eight-day siege, as authorities assured beleaguered tourists that flights would resume within 24 hours. Yellow-clad demonstrators packed up their belongings and streamed out of Suvarnabhumi airport in cars, taxis and buses after the PAD handed over control to officials. The exodus came a day after the movement claimed victory in its campaign against the prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, when a court barred the PM from politics and disbanded the ruling party.

But with the former government vowing to regroup and choose Thailand's third prime minister in three months in a vote next week, there was little hope of long-term stability for the kingdom returning soon. "We will come back when the nation needs us," said Somkiat Pongpaibul, a key leader of the royalist PAD, which groups Bangkok's urban elite and middle classes, backed by elements from the military and the palace.

The movement's co-founder, Chamlong Srimuang, hugged and shook hands with the chief of the airport authority before bowing down and paying his respects in front of a portrait of Thailand's much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Supporters chanted "Long Live the King!"

Damage from the occupation of the gleaming $3-billiion airport since Nov 25 had not yet been estimated, he said. Suvarnabhumi opened with much fanfare in 2006 and last year handled 41 million passengers. An AFP correspondent saw hundreds of protesters piling their belongings on private vehicles, cabs and coaches soon after the handover, and by midday only a couple of hundred remained.

"I am looking forward to sleeping in my home, but everybody came here because they love the king," said Neepirom Kunniam, 58, wearing the movement's trademark yellow clothes, which symbolise devotion to the monarchy.

A line of hundreds of protesters snaked through the departures area early today as they got autographs from Chamlong and his PAD co-founder Sondhi Limthongkul. Former ruling party members have vowed to form another government under a new banner after the toppling of Mr Somchai, who was barred from politics for five years by the Constitutional Court in a vote fraud case. Protesters accused Mr Somchai's administration of acting as a proxy for the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, and of being hostile to the monarchy.

"In the next two weeks I think we will come again," said protester Pas Apinantpreeda. PAD protests led to the coup which toppled Thaksin and the group took to the streets again in May this year. Mr Somchai's predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, was forced out in September for receiving payment for a TV cooking show. The king celebrates his birthday on Friday and is due to make a speech a day earlier. Analysts said the developments would bring a brief respite until the remnants of the government tried to name a new premier in parliament, probably on Dec 8, but would not solve the kingdom's underlying problems.

Mr Somchai's party said it was ready to move lawmakers into a different shell party and continue administering the country, and the other coalition parties have vowed to back them. * AFP