Thai protesters want Parliament dissolved in month

BANGKOK (AP) — Thai protesters seeking a change of government softened their demands Friday, saying they are willing to give the prime minister 30 days to dissolve Parliament and call new elections, instead of insisting that he take action immediately.

The offer came a day after grenades killed one person and wounded 86 near the red-shirted protesters' rally site in Bangkok's central business district. Five M-79 grenades struck areas where a group opposed to the protesters had gathered to denounce the Red Shirts, tens of thousands of whom have occupied parts of the capital for six weeks.

The heated passions of the rival protesters, who have hurled rocks and insults at each other, have raised fears of escalating vigilante-type violence.

The Red Shirts consist mainly of rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006. They believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government is illegitimate because it came to power under military pressure through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments.

Their opponents include workers inconvenienced by the demonstrations and members of the Yellow Shirts, a group whose main purpose is to oppose Thaksin's return to power and who themselves staged protests in Bangkok two years ago, seizing the city's airports and prime minister's offices. The group staged a big rally in another part of Bangkok on Friday afternoon.

Jaran Ditthapichai, a Red Shirt leader, said his group held unofficial talks with the government on Wednesday and Friday. He claimed that the government had privately expressed a willingness to compromise, suggesting it could dissolve the government in three months instead of the six on which it originally insisted.

He said the proposal for a 30-day deadline — instead of immediately — was offered to try to avoid new violence.

Abhisit did not respond directly when asked by reporters about the offer. He said that what was most important now was everybody should abide by the law.

"I just want to say that I will not stay on if I don't mean to solve the problem," he said. "Currently, I believe that I grieve as everybody does. And I intend to solve the problem."

The Red Shirt statement does not categorically say the group will give up its protest if Parliament is dissolved by the deadline, but rather that it would be willing to negotiate with the government if three conditions are met. The government has up to 60 days to hold an election after dissolving Parliament

However, another protest leader, Veera Musikapong, said, "If the government accepts and is open to the talks, we are ready to disperse to restore peace in the country."

The other conditions are for the government to stop harassing the group, and to hold an impartial investigation of violence that has marred the protests, including a government sweep on April 10 to oust the Red Shirts that resulted in 25 deaths and more than 800 injuries.

Asked what would happen if people feel that they could not rely on his government to handle the situation and instead take action themselves, Abhisit said: "I have to stand firm that I can't let that happen. And if I can't do it, I shall not stay on."

The latest development inspired guarded optimism that more violence could be avoided.

"At least, this is better than before. Here is a chance that the crisis won't end with blood," said Prinya Thewanaruemitkul, a law lecturer at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "It might seem both sides won't compromise, but there is a path leading toward a timeframe they could mutually agree upon."

Much of the Thai capital's central business district remained paralyzed following Thursday's attacks on Silom Road, which saw rocket propelled grenades explode at an elevated train station and on a sidewalk near a hotel driveway and a bank. Many banks, offices, restaurants and a major shopping complex were closed along the key downtown artery, which is a popular tourist strip.

The perpetrators are not known; the government stopped short of directly blaming the Red Shirts, saying only that the grenades were fired from an area where they are encamped. The protesters have denied involvement.

Since the protests began, 45 incidents of grenade attacks and bomb explosions have rocked the city, according to the government. Nobody has yet been apprehended, giving rise to speculation that some attacks were the work of renegade army officers either seeking to provoke the Red Shirts or to settle scores within the fractious military.

Opposite the mouth of Silom Road, the Red Shirts have erected a barricade of tires and bamboo stakes, behind which they have created a virtual village that stretches for more than a mile (2 kilometers) along one of the ritziest streets in the capital. Five-star hotels, shopping malls and office buildings in the upscale district have closed, further devastating the country's vital tourism industry already hit by the instability.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Abhisit's government has threatened to curtail the protests but has failed to follow through. Military units from the 200,000-strong army have been routed in several confrontations with the crudely armed demonstrators. The police have often melted when faced with determined protesters.

Several countries strengthened their travel advice for Thailand after Thursday's attacks. The U.S., Britain and the Scandinavian countries have urged their citizens to avoid Bangkok. Australia told its nationals "to reconsider your need to travel to Thailand."


Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Denis D. Gray and Grant Peck contributed to this report.