Thai protest leaders accept offer of mediated talks

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Hopes rose Tuesday for an end to deadly street battles that have killed at least 37 and wounded 266 over the past six days when anti-government protest leaders said they would unconditionally accept an offer by the Thai Senate to mediate talks.

Demonstrators continued to occupy a mile-square camp in a posh Bangkok shopping district despite a Monday deadline set by the government to evacuate.

On Tuesday, Thailand’s upper house of Parliament offered to broker negotiations between the opposing sides provided they stopped fighting, hoping to halt further bloodshed that many believe is likely if the army moves in and disperses the campers.

There was no immediate response from the government on the offer, but previous efforts at ending the standoff have failed, most notably a government offer earlier this month to hold November elections that was rescinded after protest leaders upped the ante.

The latest move follows word that protest leader Nattawut Saikuwa and lead government negotiator Korbsak Sabhavasu discussed possible negotiations late Monday.

The government said Tuesday that it would extended a Bangkok public holiday through May 21 to “give the authorities time to resolve the crisis and make sure innocent civilians and civil servants are safe,” Supachai Jaisamut, a deputy government spokesman, told reporters.

Thailand’s government has warned protesters barricaded behind bamboo staves and tires that those who stayed beyond the 3 p.m. Monday cutoff were breaking the law and faced a two-year jail sentence.

Some demonstrators appeared to heed the ultimatum, including a couple seen packing up their belongings — a wok, plastic tables, clothes and a fan — before bidding farewell to their neighbors and hailing a three-wheeled motorized tuk-tuk out of the area.

But thousands stood their ground, some paying tribute to Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, a renegade army officer and protest leader who died Monday of head wounds sustained last week at the hands of a sniper. The army has denied a role in the shooting.

Singers belted out democracy songs from a main stage inside the encampment, as protesters danced, napped, made slingshots and set off firecrackers.

“We will stay here until our fight is won,” said Mongkol Choren, 43, a motorcycle mechanic from Khon Kaen province, resting under a blue tarp with his wife.

“ Red Shirts,” as the protesters are called, have occupied some of the Thai capital’s priciest real estate since March, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the dissolution of parliament and new elections.

The protesters, drawn primarily from poor, rural and working-class groups, argue that the government is illegitimate and has gained power by manipulating the courts and currying favor with the military.

The dispute, with its overtones of class struggle, is the nation’s deadliest and most prolonged political crisis in decades, undermining the economy, international confidence and the crucial tourism industry.

Troops have surrounded the mile-square area and cut off water, power and food, shooting at protesters who ventured beyond their barricades into the no man’s land separating the two sides to hurl Molotov cocktails, homemade rockets and burning tires.

The army’s preparations suggested it was gearing up to storm the protest camp, perhaps within the next 48 hours, analysts said, with significant risks for both sides.

The government must worry about high casualties among civilians and even its own troops, given the number of weapons that protesters may have stockpiled, said Nicholas Farrelly, an assistant lecturer of political and social change with Australian National University.

And Red Shirt leaders must be wondering whether they have miscalculated and should have opted for a strategic retreat to fight another day.

A few hours before the deadline, volunteers with the International Committee of the Red Cross delivered food and medical supplies to a Buddhist temple within the protest zone where women, children and the elderly who opted to stay have taken refuge. Doctors examined the sick and dispensed medicine.

Demonstrator Ukraiwan Chongthongkarn from Phitsanulok province, who’d been camping out here for two months with her husband and four young children, cradled her 1-year-old son. . “He’s not feeling well,” she said, adding that she has no plans to leave.

Nearby, a long line of people waited for water, instant noodles, canned mackerel and personal hygiene kits.

“We are not involved in the evacuation because there are some politics in that,” said Dr. Pichit Siriwan, a deputy relief coordinator with the Thai Red Cross Society. “We are just here to help people in need.”

He said he was concerned over the prospect of “major mass casualties.”

With the encouragement of the government, nonprofit groups have assisted protesters who wanted to leave the area.

“We try to help, but many people want to remain inside,” said Ekraj Sabur, head of the Thai branch of Youth Coordination Center International, a civic group. His group evacuated about 15 children.

Red Shirt leaders have called for for intervention by Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82, hospitalized since September. But the monarch, who in past decades has stepped in to stop bloodshed, has not spoken publicly about the crisis.

Many protest leaders have walked a fine line with the rank and file, telling demonstrators to leave if they want to, even as they encouraged others to stay.

“Don’t be afraid, just sit still,” said Sean Boonpracong, a Red Shirt spokesman, over loudspeakers heard throughout the protest zone. “If they like to kill us, they kill us.”

Tran reported from Bangkok, Thailand, and Magnier from New Delhi.