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Thai anti-government protesters agree to talks to end violence

world Updated: May 18, 2010 10:40 IST

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Thai anti-government protesters agreed on Tuesday to talks brokered by a Senate leader to end Thailand's deadliest political crisis in nearly two decades and halt spiralling violence that has killed 38 people in five days.

Troops have surrounded thousands of anti-government demonstrators in the fortified camp they have occupied since April 3 in central Bangkok. Pockets of violence have erupted in several other parts of the capital in recent days.

"We have agreed to take a new round of talks proposed by the Senate because if we allow things to go on like this, we don't know how many more lives will be lost," Nattawut Saikua, one of the "red shirt" leaders, told a news conference.

The talks would be led by a group of 64 senators who offered to mediate with the protesters and want a ceasfire on both sides.

The government's response to the offer was not immediately known, but Nattawut, speaking inside the protesters' fortified camp, said it was in the interests of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to seek a negotiated end to the unrest.

"There has never been a prime minister that could secure victory by killing people. That could only be achieved through winning the hearts and minds of the people," he said.

An estimated 5,000 of the red-shirted protesters remain in a camp covering 3 sq km (1.2 sq miles) of an upmarket shopping district, set up as part of a movement that began in mid-March with the aim of toppling the government and forcing elections.

The authorities had warned them to leave by 3 pm (0800 GMT) on Monday, but the deadline passed without action being taken.

Hundreds of women and children took refuge in a temple inside the protest area, but some protesters fought with soldiers in areas around the camp.

Red shirt leaders have previously proposed a ceasefire and talks moderated by the United Nations, which the government dismissed. On Monday, they said they would accept talks as long as a neutral arbiter took part and troops withdrew.

"The government cannot entertain demands from the protesters," said Korbsak Sabhavasu, a senior aide to the prime minister earlier on Tuesday.

"The best way forward is to stop talking about negotiation and for the protest leaders to call their people back to the Rachaprasong rally area and stop the violence," he added.

Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said some "terrorists" were trying to foment trouble through random killings.

"There are groups of terrorists trying to create incidents by hurting and killing people. Their targets are innocent
people at the rallies, rescue workers, journalists," Sansern said.

He said one such incident occurred on Monday north of the main protest site in an apartment block under construction.

"A group of snipers dressed as soldiers were hiding on floors 24 to 27 aiming randomly at people, and that is being blamed on soldiers," he told a televised briefing.

Thai media reported a fire was raging in a row of deserted shops in the same area on Tuesday and firefighters were struggling to get into the area because of barricades.

Erawan Emergency Medical Centre said on Tuesday that 38 people had died in the flare-up of violence since May 13 and 67 have been killed people since trouble started in April.

The protesters, mostly drawn from the rural and urban poor, and supporters of ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, had initially demanded immediate elections.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva unilaterally offered an election in November -- just over a year before one was due -- but withdrew the offer because the "red shirts" refused to end their rally and kept adding more demands.

"Following the prime minister's decision to scrap the poll plan, it has become clear that hope for any political solution and reconciliation of the situation even in the short term is extremely slim," political analyst Maria Patrikainen of IHS Global Insight Analysis wrote in a note on the crisis.

"With no immediate solution in sight, the fighting also threatens to further divide Thailand's already fractured society, pushing the country towards civil war," she added.

Among the smaller incidents reported from late on Monday, Channel 3 television reported that hundreds of red shirts had attempted to hold a protest at Ramkamhaneg University in the south of the city on Monday evening.

When students resisted and riot police intervened, the red shirts agreed to hold their rally outside the university. Later a gunman driving past on a motorbike fired into the crowd and the demonstrators dispersed. Some minor injuries were reported.