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Red Shirts defy deadline

world Updated: May 18, 2010 01:04 IST
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The Thai government said on Monday it would accept a ceasefire offer from a Red Shirt protest leader if their fighters return to their camp in central Bangkok, as street battles that have killed 37 people raged for a fifth day.

The offer was made by Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikuwa, who called the government’s chief negotiator, Korbsak Sabhavasu, on his cell phone, Korbsak said. It was the first direct talks between the two sides since the fighting started Thursday, but Korbsak said it was unlikely to achieve much as the two sides still remained far apart.

Nattawut’s response was not immediately known. Calls to his phone went unanswered.

Earlier, a Thai government ultimatum passed for the thousands of protesters to vacate the barricaded encampment by 3 pm Monday or face up to two years in prison.

Meanwhile, unrest flared in various parts of the downtown area outside the barricades, with troops firing live ammunition at protesters who were lighting tires to hide their positions. The thick smoke darkened the sky.

The Red Shirts, many of whom hail from the impoverished north and northeast, are trying to unseat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and force immediate elections. They say the coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it symbolises a national elite indifferent to their plight.

Previous attempts to negotiate an end to the two-month standoff — which has destabilized a country once regarded as one of Southeast Asia’s most stable democracies — have failed. A government offer earlier this month to hold November elections floundered after protest leaders made more demands.