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Thailand Cease-Fire On Table: Thai Government To Accept Red Shirt Offer

Thailand

VIJAY JOSHI   05/18/10 12:38 AM ET   AP

BANGKOK — Security forces arrested a 12-year-old boy Tuesday for allegedly setting fire to several houses during the mayhem gripping the Thai capital as the United Nations urged the government and Red Shirt protesters to negotiate.

At least 37 people – mostly civilians – have been killed and 266 wounded since the government began a blockade last Thursday on a sprawling protesters' camp in the heart of Bangkok. Most of the unrest has flared outside the camp, with troops firing live ammunition at roaming protesters who have lit tires to hide their positions.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's administration gave the anti-government demonstrators, who have been entrenched in the upscale Rajprasong district for more than a month, a Monday afternoon deadline to leave or face two-year prison terms.

By Tuesday, there was still no exodus among the estimated 3,000 protesters remaining at the camp, and no sign of troops trying to break through their tire-and-bamboo barricades. But there were signs the two sides may be talking.

The Red Shirts, many of whom hail from the impoverished north and northeast, have been rallying in the city since March 12 in attempts to unseat Abhisit 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 symbolizes a national elite indifferent to their plight.

Previous attempts to negotiate an end to the 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.

The United Nations urged a negotiated solution, saying "there is a high risk that the situation could spiral out of control." However, despite tentative talk Monday of a cease-fire, the government's chief negotiator said the two sides remain far apart.

The Thai government said late Monday that it would accept a cease-fire offer from a "Red Shirt" protest leader if their fighters end raging street battles and return to their main camp.

Red Shirt protest leader Nattawut Saikuwa, who called the government's chief negotiator, Korbsak Sabhavasu, on his mobile phone Monday, Korbsak said. It was the first direct talks between the two sides since the fighting started Thursday, though 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.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights called for restraint on both sides and more talks.

"To prevent further loss of life, I appeal to the protesters to step back from the brink, and the security forces to exercise maximum restraint," commissioner Navi Pillay said in a statement from Geneva. "Ultimately, this situation can only be resolved by negotiation."

At dawn Tuesday, security forces arrested a 12-year-old boy for allegedly setting fire to four empty townhouses adjacent to a branch of the Bangkok Bank, television stations reported, showing flames shooting into the sky.

The Bangkok Bank is one of the targets of the protesters who claim it has close connections to the government.

The political conflict is Thailand's deadliest and most prolonged in decades, and each passing day of violence deeply divides in this nation of 65 million – a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.

It was not clear how many people were left at the Rajprasong camp, but the government said 3,000 people remained, down from 5,000 on Sunday and 10,000 last week. The numbers could not be independently confirmed.

It was unknown how many were rioting outside the main protest zone.

Some protesters commandeered a fuel tanker from a gasoline station and pushed it to the middle of the key Rama IV road that has become a battleground. The protesters tried to set it ablaze with a burning tire and fireworks, but were deterred by troops.

Also Monday, the so-called military strategist of the Red Shirts, who was shot in the head in an apparent sniper attack last week, succumbed to his injuries.

The shooting last Thursday of Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol had sparked the latest unrest, and his death raised fears violence could get worse.

Another Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said the only hope now to end the violence was intervention by Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The 82-year-old monarch, hospitalized since September, has remained publicly silent on the crisis, unlike decades past when he stepped in to stop bloodshed.

Authorities have not spelled out what would happen after the deadline to leave the encampment, but there are concerns it could precede a crackdown. Still, previous such deadlines have been ignored without consequences.

A previous army attempt to disperse the protesters on April 10 – when they had congregated in a different area of Bangkok – left 25 people dead.

According to government figures, 66 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in March.

Days of prolonged fighting and disruption to normal city life have taken their toll on Bangkok residents. Most shops, hotels and businesses near the protest area are shut and long lines formed at supermarkets outside the protest zone as people rushed to stock up on food. The city's two mass transit systems remained closed Monday.

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

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Filed by Adam J. Rose  |