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No ceasefire in sight for Bangkok

The Thai government has ruled out negotiating with “Red Shirt” demonstrators until they end their crippling Bangkok protest, after the protesters agreed to crisis talks mediated by senators.

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Five days of clashes with troops have left 38 dead and reduced parts of Bangkok to battle zones, with smoke billowing from piles of tyres set ablaze by demonstrators occupying the city’s main shopping district.

As the United Nations urged Thailand to “step back from the brink”, some 60 senators sent a letter to the government and the Reds on Monday, urging them to halt the violence and enter into talks organised by the upper house.

“The Reds agree to accept the proposal by the senate speaker who wants to mediate the talks, and are ready to join from now,” said protest leader Nattawut Saikuar.

“We will not go with any conditions, the senator is free to offer any proposals and we are willing to consider them,” he added, in a climbdown from earlier demands for talks brokered by the UN or another international agency.

But cabinet minister Satit Wonghnongtaey said in a nationally televised news conference that there could only be negotiations and a resolution “when demonstrators disperse”.

Two previous rounds of negotiations have collapsed “due to interference from people overseas,” he said, in an apparent reference to fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

The government has accused Thaksin, who lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption, of undermining reconciliation efforts and funding the Reds’ campaign.

Underlining the mistrust between the two sides, the deputy premier in charge of security affairs, Suthep Thaugsuban, dismissed as “nonsense” a separate Reds’ offer of a ceasefire.

“The security forces are carrying out their duties in line with the authorities’ orders,” Suthep said after troops moved in to seal the rally zone, triggering violent clashes with protesters on the perimeters of the camp.

“Our containment measures aim to stop the food supply, reduce the number of new protesters and put pressure on them to go home,” he said, adding that an all-out crackdown to clear the camp was “our last resort”.

The Reds, who are campaigning for elections to replace the administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, have defied a Monday deadline to disperse from the upscale shopping district which they have occupied for two months.

A police spokesman said there were still around 5,000 protesters, including hundreds of women and children, at the fortified rally site and that large crowds have also gathered at three other locations in the city.

The violence, which eased Tuesday with only sporadic gunfire, turned parts of the city of 12 million into no-go zones as troops used live ammunition against protesters, who fought back mainly with homemade weapons.

Amnesty International accused Thailand’s army of “reckless use of lethal force” in its campaign to seal off the protest zone, which has left 38 dead and 279 injured since last Thursday.

The capital’s two main train systems, the underground and the overhead “sky train”, are closed and schools and government offices have been shut this week to keep civilians off the streets.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on both sides to negotiate an end to the violence, saying there was a high risk it could “spiral out of control” after the expiry of the Monday deadline.

“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 in line with the instructions given by the government,” she said in a statement.

But protesters were in a defiant mood at their encampment, dancing and waving heart-shaped clappers in front of a stage as leaders rallied the crowd.

The Reds consider Abhisit’s government illegitimate because it came to power with the backing of the army, in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ruling ousted elected Thaksin’s allies.

The two-month crisis has now left 67 people dead and about 1,700 wounded. Twenty-five people died in a failed army crackdown on April 10.