Thai PM: End protests for talks

The Thai government rejected a proposal on Tuesday for peace talks with leaders of the Red Shirt protesters to end the deadly mayhem gripping Bangkok, saying negotiations cannot start until the demonstrators disperse.
The decision set back hopes of stemming the crisis after six days of violence that has left 38 people dead and destabilised a country once regarded as one of Southeast Asia’s strongest democracies. Thousands of anti-government Red Shirts, many rural poor, remain camped behind barricades to press their demand for quick national elections.
Their sympathisers battled soldiers in nearby streets. Cabinet minister Satit Wonghnongtaey quoted the Prime Minister as saying he welcomed negotiations to halt the violence but that “talks will happen only after the protest has ended.” Tuesday’s televised comments came in response to an offer made earlier in the day by Red Shirt protest leaders, who said they would unconditionally accept an offer by the country’s Senate to mediate between the two sides. The protesters’ acceptance was significant, since they had previously set conditions for any talks.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva asked the Senate to maintain contact with Red Shirt leaders and urge them to end their protest, Mr Satit said. After hearing the government response, the Red Shirts vowed their demonstration would go on.
“As long as the troops are confronting the people, the people will fight,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a key protest leader. “Peace will start when troops retreat and then negotiations can take place.” The Red Shirts have for a month occupied a three-sq-km chunk of downtown Bangkok’s toniest real estate, camping in the streets next to shuttered five-star hotels and upscale shopping malls. It was not clear exactly how many people were left there Tuesday. The government estimated 3,000, down from 5,000 on Sunday and 10,000 last week. The protesters are demanding that Mr Abhisit dissolve Parliament and call early elections. They say the current administration came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it goes against results of a 2007 election to restore democracy after a military coup. The standoff deteriorated into street clashes last Thursday after the military surrounded entrances to the protest zone in an attempt to cut off supplies of food and water, and a military adviser to the Red Shirts was shot by an apparent sniper. Since then, fiery battles have raged on streets in nearby areas. Scattered clashes continued on Tuesday between soldiers and the Red Shirts, though confrontations appeared less intense than in the days before.
A group of about 20 Red Shirt protesters held a “nude” rally near the site of previous deadly clashes, saying the military had shot defenceless civilians. Men and women, old and young, stripped down to their underwear and held a banner reading, “We Are Unarmed.” The military defended its use of deadly but limited force, saying troops only fired to protect themselves and Bangkok’s citizens and did not pursue pre-emptive attacks. “If they don’t move close to us, there won’t be any losses,” Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said. He also accused the Red Shirts of using a young child as a human shield, holding him up above a barricade in the streets.

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