Thai government ready for talks with Red Shirts

BANGKOK, April 15, 2010 (AFP) - Thailand's government urged "Red Shirt" protesters Thursday to return to the negotiating table as the army cleared abandoned armoured vehicles from Bangkok's streets after deadly weekend clashes.

The red-clad demonstrators hunkered down in Bangkok's commercial heart, preparing for a final showdown with the authorities in their effort to force immediate elections to replace Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government.

Thai buddhist monks gather with Red Shirt protesters in a commercial district of Bangkok on April 15, 2010. AFP photo

"If the government still wants to retake this area, we can do nothing except wait. We have overcome fear. Nothing can scare us anymore," said a Reds leader, Nattawut Saikuar.

The death toll from Thailand's worst political violence in almost two decades rose to at least 23 people, 18 of whom died from gunshot wounds, emergency services said as the government called for fresh negotiations.

"The government is ready to talk whenever the Reds want, but the Reds said they don't want to," said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.

"All political conflicts end at the negotiating table," he told AFP.

Saturday's clashes erupted as the army tried unsuccessfully to clear an area in Bangkok's old city, sparking street battles involving soldiers, red-clad protesters and unidentified gunmen described as "terrorists" by the government.

Leaders of the red-clad movement have said there is no point in further talks, demanding immediate elections.

Negotiations last month between the two sides ended in stalemate after the Reds rejected the government's compromise offer to hold polls at the end of this year.

The Reds charge that the government is illegitimate because it came to power in 2008 after a court ousted allies of former prime minister and telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra from power.

The mostly poor and rural Reds have moved out of the capital's historic district and converged in an area of Bangkok that is home to several luxury hotels and major shopping centres.

As the protesters left, the authorities moved in to clean up. Cranes hoisted the hulks of armoured personnel carriers splashed with anti-government slogans onto trailers, while cleaners hosed down the blood-stained streets.

The authorities have said they will not try to put down peaceful rallies but have urged the Reds to leave the commercial district, where they have disrupted traffic and caused major shopping centres to close.

A crackdown in the area is seen as unlikely because of the risk that children, elderly demonstrators and tourists might get caught up in clashes, as well as the possibility of damage to shopping malls and hotels.

The Reds have challenged the government's assertion that there were M16 and AK47 assault rifles among the protesters.

"If they can prove those terrorists are related to us, we will take responsibility," said Nattawut. "But can the army deny that those killed during the clashes died from army bullets?"

The army has defended its use of guns during the crackdown, saying live shots were only fired in the air or by troops providing cover for soldiers who were themselves under fire.

The government, which imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas a week ago, has accused Thaksin of stoking the unrest, which has prompted growing international alarm.

Eighteen civilians, including a Japanese cameraman, and five soldiers were killed in the clashes in Bangkok on Saturday, with more than 800 injured, according to the Erawan emergency centre.

Fifteen civilians and three soldiers died from gunshot wounds while two military personnel were killed in grenade attacks, according to the centre.

Another man also died of a gunshot wound but it was not clear whether it was linked to the civil unrest, the centre said.

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