Monday, November 29, 1999

Thai protesters seek talks as fighting rages, kills 25

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Thai protesters said on Sunday they were ready for U.N.-supervised talks with the government if the army stops shooting after three days of clashes that have killed 25 people and turned Bangkok into a battleground.The comments came minutes after the Thai government moved back from imposing a curfew in Bangkok as fighting raged in two areas of the city of 15 million people, trapping panicked residents and raising the risk of a broader civil conflict."We call on the government to cease fire and pull out troops. We are ready to enter a negotiation process immediately," Nattawut Saikai, a protest leader, told supporters. "We have no other condition. We do not want any more losses."The government's immediate response was that no conditions should be attached to negotiations. "If they really want to talk, they should not set conditions like asking us to withdraw troops," said Korbsak Sabhavasu, the prime minister's secretary-general. "It's a positive sign but if there is going to be a talk, there has to be more detail. But they cannot make demands if they want to negotiate."The curfew would have been a rarity in a city known for raucus nightlife. It had been considered as troops fired live rounds to disperse protesters armed with petrol bombs, rocks, home-made rockets, grenades and guns."We cannot retreat now," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a televised statement on Saturday.The heaviest fighting was taking place in the Bon Kai area of Rama IV, a major artery to the business district. Troops and snipers fired machine guns as protesters hurled petrol bombs and burned walls of kerosene-soaked tyres to camoflauge themselves.One protester was shot in the head by a sniper, a Reuters witness said. By afternoon, as clashes intensified, a grenade was tossed at troops, who responded with gunfire that scattered the demonstrators into nearby alleys, the witness said.The protesters had been demanding the resignation of the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit, who they accuse of colluding with Thailand's royalist elite and meddling with the judiciary to bring down previous elected governments."I will stay here. We will not flee," Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, told supporters in their 3.5 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) encampment where at least 5,000 remain, including women and children, barricaded behind walls of tyres, poles and concrete.Some women, children and the elderly are trickling into a nearby Buddhist temple for safety. The government is seeking cooperation with protest leaders to dispatch Red Cross workers and other human rights volunteers to persuade people to leave.PROTESTERS MASSINGAnalysts and diplomats said the military appears to have underestimated the resolve of thousands of protesters barricaded in district of luxury hotels and shopping malls for six weeks.Thousands of protesters were massing in a separate area in working-class Klong Toey area near the fighting on Rama IV. A new protest site would vastly complicate attempts to end the protests and resolve a crisis that has battered the economy."Unless the government cracks down and does so decisively, and that's a big if, we are going to be seeing minor rioting and guerilla warfare, possibly spreading out to other areas of Bangkok," said the diplomat who declined to be identified.As Bangkok braced for more unrest, many residents stayed indoors or hoarded food and other supplies from grocery stores."We don't know how much longer this nightmare is going to last and how far it will spread," said Panna Srisuwan, a Bangkok resident waiting in line at a supermarket. "I am stocking up for the rest of the week."Witnesses said the bloodshed has been largely one-sided, as troops armed with automatic rifles easily dodge projectiles and open fire with automatic weapons. Some protesters have been killed by snipers positioned on the tops of office towers.Soldiers can shoot if protesters come within 36 metres (120 ft) of army lines, said army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd, adding more soldiers were needed to establish control.No soldiers have been identified in the official tolls that show 25 people killed and 215 wounded. Two rescue medical workers have been killed. Five journalists have been shot, though one was not wounded because the bullet deflected off his flak jacket.Near Victory Monument, where clashes took place on Saturday, a young man walking the street was shot in the head by a sniper's bullet, a Reuters witness said. He did not appear to be a protester.Many protest leaders now face terrorism charges that carry a maximum penalty of death, raising the stakes in a two-month crisis that has paralysed parts of Bangkok, stifled Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy and decimated tourism.The protesters, who have adopted red as a protest colour and broadly support ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, set fire to vehicles and hurled rocks at troops who set up razor wire across deserted roads on Saturday in the business district.The U.S. Embassy has offered to evacuate families and partners of U.S. government staff based in Bangkok on a voluntary basis, and urged its citizens against travel to Bangkok.The government's strategy of starving protesters out of their encampment was shows signs of having an effect. Supplies of food, water and fuel were starting to run thin as the red shirt delivery trucks were being blocked.But they said they still had enough to hold out for days.(Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja and Ploy Ten Kate; editing by Bill Tarrant)

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