Thai Red Shirt offers ceasefire as deadline passes

Thai emergency medical staff rush Maj. Gen Khattiya Sawasdiphol, also known as "Seh Daeng" to surgery after he was shot Thursday, May 13, 2010, in Bangkok, Thailand. The renegade army officer accused of marshaling a paramilitary force among Thailand's Red Shirt protesters was shot in the head Thursday, apparently by a sniper, an aide said. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit) (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

May 17, 2010 8:28:08 AM PDT
The Thai government said it would accept a cease-fire offer from a Red Shirt protest leader on Monday 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 came during a telephone conversation between Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikuwa, who called the government's chief negotiator, Korbsak Sabhavasu, on his cell phone. It was the first direct talks between the two sides since the fighting started Thursday.

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

Earlier, a Thai government ultimatum passed for the estimated 5,000 protesters occupying a barricaded encampment in the city center by 3 p.m. Monday or face up to two years in prison. The demand had little apparent effect, and unrest still 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 symbolizes 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.

Korbsak told reporters that he talked to Nattawut for five minutes, during which the Red Shirt leader proposed a cease-fire. He said he told Nattawut that the army will stop shooting if he calls his fighters back from the streets to the core protest site.

"If they call their people back to Rajprasong there will be no single bullet fired by the soldiers," he said, referring to the 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) protest area occupied by the Red Shirts in a ritzy commercial district of the capital.

The Rajprasong area is encircled by troops in a wide perimeter, and protesters have spilled out into surrounding streets that have become a battleground. The rioters have set fire to vehicles and fired homemade bombs and firecrackers at the soldiers, who have responded with live ammunition.

At least 37 people have been killed in the violence and more than 250 injured.

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.


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