PATTAYA, Thailand - Thousands of anti-government protesters retreated Friday after an all-day standoff with soldiers in riot gear at the Asian summit, but vowed to return the next day unless the Thai prime minister resigns.

The protests threatened to disrupt a gathering of leaders from 16 Asian nations, including China and Japan, aimed at tackling the global financial crisis and boosting trade within the region. PMAbhisit Vejjajiva, who has repeatedly refused to quit, said the summit would continue as planned.

"I would like to stress that we can provide security and ensure that these meetings will proceed smoothly," he told a news conference dominated by questions about the protests. The faceoff between about 2,000 red-shirted protesters and several hundred soldiers was the latest episode in Thailand's long-running political crisis and an embarrassment for the country, coming less than five months after Bangkok's airports were shut for a week by a rival group of protesters.

Leaders from Southeast Asian nations were arriving safely at the summit venue, Abhisit said. But delegates to the meeting sought ways to avoid the protesters, who erected roadblocks on the routes up to the hilltop convention center in Pattaya, a beachside town about 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok, the capital. Some were forced to walk along the beach in their suits and dress shoes to reach the venue.

Despite their retreat Friday evening, the demonstrators said they might return. "We have made our point. This government is illegitimate," said Arisman Pongreungrong, a protest leader. "We will return tomorrow if our demands are not met."

Letter to leaders

The protesters had demanded that an international representative - not a Thai official - accept a letter that called for Abhisit's resignation. A representative from Malaysia accepted the letter, prompting their retreat.

Concerns for violence remained high. A brief clash erupted as the protesters left and were confronted by a group of a few hundred pro-government supporters who were waiting about half a mile (2 kilometers) from the summit venue. They threw rocks and wooden sticks at each other for several minutes, until riot police separated them.

The protesters are supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a 2006 military coup and has fled into exile. Most come from the rural poor majority that benefited from Thaksin's populist policies. The summit began Friday morning with a meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Hürriyet Daily News