- demonstrations - military - Red Shirts - Thailand
Talks stall as UN urges both sides to ‘step back from the brink’
As Red Shirt protesters defied a deadline to evacuate central Bangkok, ceasefire talks between government and opposition negotiators hit a stalemate Tuesday even as the UN called on protesters and security forces to “step back from the brink”.
AFP - Thailand on Tuesday rejected a call from anti-government protesters for a ceasefire to end deadly street clashes as "nonsense", as the UN warned the crisis could spiral out of control.
Columns of smoke billowed over central Bangkok from piles of tyres set ablaze by the "Red Shirt" protesters, and an explosion boomed from the conflict zone, where five days of violence have left 38 people dead and 279 wounded.
The Reds, who are campaigning for elections to replace the administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, are defying a Monday deadline to disperse from Bangkok's main shopping district, which they have occupied for two months.
Protest leaders have offered the government a truce but are demanding that troops withdraw before they go to the negotiating table, while the authorities insist the protesters must first disperse.
"This is nonsense," Suthep Thaugsuban, deputy prime minister in charge of security affairs, told reporters when asked to respond to the Reds' ceasefire proposal.
"The security forces are carrying out their duties in line with the authorities' orders," he 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".
A police spokesman said there were still about 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 escalating violence has turned parts of the city of 12 million into no-go zones as troops use live ammunition against protesters, who have blocked streets with burning tyres and fought back, mainly with homemade weapons.
The capital's two main train systems, the underground and the overhead monorail, were both closed for the fourth day in a row and schools and government offices have been shut to keep civilians off the streets.
On Tuesday a row of disused shophouses was set ablaze in the Din Daeng area just north of the Reds camp, one of the hot spots where troops have battled with the Reds in a bid to seal off the sprawling rally site.
Police said a 14-year-old boy had been arrested over the blaze, but said he had "nothing to do with the current political turmoil".
The Reds had proposed that the United Nations or another international agency broker negotiations to end the crisis -- an idea swiftly rejected by the government.
On Tuesday Reds leader Nattawut Saikuar said the movement was prepared to accept an offer by the head of Thailand's senate to mediate talks, but the government has not responded to the proposal.
The recent spate of heavy violence began after Abhisit shelved a plan to hold early elections, which the Red Shirts had initially agreed to, as negotiations towards a reconciliation "roadmap" broke down.
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 on Tuesday protesters were in a defiant mood at their encampment, with hundreds doing their morning exercises in front of a stage where leaders rallied the crowd.
Authorities have said they would send the Red Cross to help evacuate the area of women, children and the elderly who want to leave, but that those who stay face two years in prison.
The Reds consider Abhisit's government illegitimate because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ruling ousted elected allies of their hero, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin on Monday called on the government and his Red Shirt supporters to step back from a "terrible abyss" and start talks to end violence.
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.