World

Thai government says protests in Bangkok must stop before it will talk with Red Shirts

May 18: An anti-government protester runs for cover in Bangkok, Thailand, as the government rejects a proposal for peace talks.

May 18: An anti-government protester runs for cover in Bangkok, Thailand, as the government rejects a proposal for peace talks.  (AP)

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's government rejected protesters' unconditional offer to negotiate Tuesday and insisted there would be no talks until the dwindling anti-government movement abandoned the ritzy areas of central Bangkok it has occupied for weeks.

Protest leaders argued over whether they should continue to resist a crackdown that has left 39 people dead over six days. The government estimated that only 3,000 people remain in the downtown encampment, down from 5,000 on Sunday and 10,000 last week.

Scattered clashes continued Tuesday outside the main protest area, but they appeared to be less intense than in previous days. Since the army surrounded the fortified entrances to the protest zone last Thursday, fiery battles have raged between soldiers firing live ammunition and hundreds of rioters with homemade weapons.

The mood in the core protest zone was subdued Tuesday, with none of the dancing and festivities that previously lent the area a carnival-like atmosphere.

Periodically, protest leaders delivered fiery speeches, meant to keep the crowd motivated. But the responses were not as full throated as before. Gone also were most food vendors, and mounds of rotting garbage piled up outside the camp's sharpened bamboo gates.

The violence in a zone that includes some of Bangkok's toniest areas has destabilized a country once regarded as one of Southeast Asia's strongest democracies.

The government appeared confident that its operation to choke off the so-called Red Shirts was working, and it would settle for nothing less than the complete clearance of Bangkok's streets.

Cabinet minister Satit Vongnongteay on Tuesday quoted the prime minister as saying he welcomed the Red Shirts' proposed negotiations, mediated by a group of senators, to halt the violence, but that "talks will happen only after the protest has ended."

Later Tuesday, after a meeting with senators, at least one Red Shirt leader appeared to offer an immediate, unconditional cease-fire to end the violence — a prospect that was met with jeers at the main protest site.

Another leader said any truce would not mean an end to the protest.

"We have come too far to surrender," said Jatuporn Prompan, a key protest leader. "We are negotiating to have them stop killing, but not to surrender." He also urged Red Shirt protesters in other provinces to decide their next move.

It was not clear how much control the leaders wield over the rioters and whether they would stop the violence if the two sides went into negotiations.

The protesters are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva 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 protesters' two-month standoff deteriorated into street clashes after a military adviser to the Red Shirts was shot by an apparent sniper last Thursday, just after the army surrounded the protest zone in an attempt to cut off supplies of food and water.

On one major roadway that had been a violent flashpoint in recent days, soldiers appeared to have stopped shooting Tuesday. Rioters used the break in fighting to reinforce the giant tire barricades they have set up.

Natchapon Soiket, a 15-year-old student stationed behind one of the large stacks of tires, said he was unafraid of the soldiers just a few hundred yards (meters) down the road.

"We use firecrackers and Molotov cocktails and the other side uses rifles," he said. "But the fighters at the front line are not worried about their lives anymore. If I was scared, I would be far behind, not here."

After nightfall, explosions echoed across parts of central Bangkok near the protest zone and there were unconfirmed reports of a blast near the Japanese Embassy.

At least 39 people — mostly civilians — have been shot and killed and 313 wounded since the government's blockade began. According to government figures, 67 people have died and more than 1,700 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their Bangkok protest in March.

With no end to the protest in sight, authorities announced that a two-day public holiday was being extended to Friday and there would continue to be a ban on selling gasoline in several Bangkok districts because rioters were using it to make weapons. Police also outlawed the sale of tires in the capital without a police permit because rioters were using them to set fires.

Previous attempts to negotiate an end to the standoff have failed. A government offer earlier this month to hold November elections fell apart after protest leaders made more demands.

The violence in Bangkok, a popular stop for tourists heading to Thailand's world-famous beaches, has caused concern internationally.

The United Nations called for a negotiated solution to the crisis, saying Monday that "there is a high risk that the situation could spiral out of control." It urged the military to show restraint and the protesters to "step back from the brink."

Amnesty International condemned the military's use of live ammunition in its bid to suppress the protest, saying in a statement that the government "cannot allow soldiers to essentially shoot at anyone within an area it wishes to control."

The military defended its use of deadly but limited force, saying troops fired only 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. The government has repeatedly blamed "terrorists" within the Red Shirt ranks for instigating violence.

A group of about 20 Red Shirt protesters held a "nude" rally near the site of previous deadly clashes Tuesday to dramatize their claim that they are unarmed and that the military had shot defenseless civilians. Men and women, old and young, stripped down to their underwear and held a banner reading, "We Are Unarmed."

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Associated Press writers Denis D. Gray, Jocelyn Gecker, Thanyarat Doksone, and Vijay Joshi contributed to this report. Additional research by Warangkana Tempati and Sinfah Tunsarawuth.