AFP - Hundreds of anti-government protesters left Bangkok's main airport Wednesday after a 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 People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) handed over control to officials.
The exodus came a day after the movement claimed victory in its campaign against Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, when a court barred the premier from politics and disbanded the ruling party.
But with the former government vowing to regroup and choose Thailand's third premier 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!"
More than 350,000 travellers have been left stranded by the chaos, with foreign nations sending emergency flights to evacuate as many as possible through a Thai naval base and from provincial airports.
Airports of Thailand chief Vudhibhandhu Vichairatana said a Thai Airways flight from the tourist town of Phuket would land at Suvarnabhumi airport on Wednesday afternoon, while international flights would resume the next day.
He said the first international departure would be a Thai Airways flight to Rome.
"We will try and get everything back to normal as soon as possible," he told reporters at the airport.
Damage from the occupation of the gleaming three-billion-dollar airport since November 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 Wednesday 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 Somchai, who was barred from politics for five years by the Constitutional Court in a vote fraud case.
Protesters accused Somchai's administration of acting as a proxy for 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. 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 December 8, but would not solve the kingdom's underlying problems.
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.