Thai PM vows to retake protest site

Red shirts braced for crackdown after Abhisit rejects demand to call polls within 30 days.

    Many Bangkok residents have grown weary of the red shirts-government standoff [Reuters]

    Bangkok is bracing for more unrest after the Thai prime minister rejected an offer by anti-government protesters to end their demonstrations in return for fresh elections within 30 days.

    Instead, Abhisit Vejjajiva reiterated in a nationally televised address on Sunday that the authorities will retake the main protest site of the so-called red shirts in Bangkok's main shopping area of Ratchaprasong.

    "There will be a retaking of Ratchaprasong, but the process, measures, how and when it will be done, we cannot disclose because it depends on several things," Abhisit said with the army chief, General Anupong Paojinda, by his side.

    In video

    Abhisit rejects red shirts' 30-day demand

    However, the embattled prime minister offered no initiatives to end the political crisis and did not give a timeframe.

    "The solution process is ongoing but may not please everyone. The government, and not only the military, is preparing to be ready for what would lead to the next level," he said.

    Anupong said the crisis must be resolved by legal means.

    "We won't use violence but as I've said earlier, the situation has escalated towards violence so the military will have to adjust its measures," Anupong said.

    Al Jazeera's Wayne Hay, reporting from Bangkok, said the recorded weekly address seemed to be an attempt to show unity between Abhisit and Anupong, who have at times appeared to differ on how to disperse the red shirts.

    Offer rescinded

    Red shirt leaders responded to Abhisit's warning by telling thousands of their supporters to expect a government crackdown.

    They also broke off talks and rescinded their offer to end their three-week occupation of the upmarket shopping and tourist area if the government called elections in 30 days and returned to their previous demand for immediate polls.

    Speeches by red shirt leaders turned more intense and aggressive almost immediately after Abhisit's rejection of their compromise offer, our correspondent said.

    in depth

      Q&A: Thaksin and the red shirts
      Profile: Thaksin Shinawatra
      Blog: Thailand's darkest day
      Deadly grenade attacks
      Red shirts rally rural support
      Protesters fight for a voice
      Violence flares in capital
      Red shirts stage blood protest
      Thailand: Warring colours
      101 East: Thailand's red shirts

    They also appeared to go on the offensive, calling, once again, for more supporters to head for the capital and promising another major rally on Monday.

    They even asked supporters to remove their red shirts and logos so they can get through checkpoints set up on the outskirts of the city to prevent them from getting to the main rally site, our correspondent said.

    Sticking with his own offer to call elections in December - a year earlier than scheduled - Abhisit said the red shirts' offer looked insincere and designed only to improve their image.

    "They keep saying they will escalate the situation. That's why the government cannot consider the proposal," he said.

    Speaking to Al Jazeera on Saturday at the army camp where he has based himself as the crisis has escalated, Abhisit appeared more confident and relaxed than in the last few weeks, our correspondent said.

    He reiterated that there was a need to separate the legitimate protesters within the red shirt movement from the criminal - or what he called terrorist elements - within the red shirt leadership.

    The red shirts are made up mostly of rural and urban poor and many of them support Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister ousted in a 2006 coup now living in exile after he was sentenced in absentia for corruption.

    The protesters have threatened to lay siege to Central World, the second-largest shopping complex in Southeast Asia, next to the stage at their main protest site.

    "If you want Central World shopping mall back safely, you must withdraw army forces out of the nearby Ratchaprasong area immediately," Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, said.

    Army split denied

    The shopping centre at the Ratchaprasong intersection has been closed since the protesters occupied the area on April 3.

    Tens of thousands of red shirts, defying the government's emergency laws, remain encamped at their Ratchaprasong base - a 3sq km self-contained fortress-like village surrounded by barricades - vowing to stay until parliament is dissolved.

    The army chief has denied speculation that there are major rifts within the force [EPA]

    And thousands of troops, many armed with M-16 rifles, keep watch over the protesters at several city intersections.

    Diplomats and analysts say the army's middle ranks look split, with one faction backing the protesters led by retired generals allied with Thaksin.

    However, Anupong, the army chief, denied on Sunday that there was any significant rifts within the military.

    The military has vacillated between warning protesters that it will forcibly disperse them from their protest site and saying that there will be no crackdown as long as women and children are present.

    A series of grenade blasts three days ago killed one person and wounded 88 in the city's financial district.

    The government blamed the red shirts for the attack but the protesters deny they were responsible.

    Casualty risk

    Thursday's violence followed an April 10 clash between protesters and the army that left 25 people dead and more than 800 wounded in the country's worst political violence in nearly two decades.

    Any attempt to disperse the protesters from the Ratchaprasong site risks heavy casualties and the prospect of clashes spilling into high-end residential areas.

    Many in Bangkok have grown weary of the confrontation between the red shirts and the government, and the ensuing disruptions.

    Thousands of residents gathered at a park on Saturday to demand the protests end.

    "Please stop the mob - I want a normal life," read one sign.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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