Thai troops close in on protest encampment

Mon May 17, 2010 12:54pm EDT
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By Ambika Ahuja

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai protesters defied warnings to disperse on Monday as troops tightened a security cordon, putting the army on a collision course with thousands of demonstrators who say they are willing to fight to the death.

An estimated 5,000 anti-government protesters hunkered down, listening to fiery political speeches and largely ignoring a 3 p.m. (0800 GMT) deadline to leave their encampment in a Bangkok commercial district.

"We will keep sending warnings to protesters and will slowly step up pressure if they don't go," said Thawil Pliensee, secretary-general of the National Security Council, adding the military had no immediate plans to clear the main camp by force.

"Red shirt" leaders had proposed a ceasefire and talks moderated by the United Nations, which the government dismissed out of hand. On Monday, they said they would accept talks as long as a neutral arbiter took part and troops withdrew.

"The government is ready to go forward with negotiations when they end rioting," said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. The protesters want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to quit but Abhisit has vowed "no retreat" against "terrorists" he says are seeking to topple his government.

A government source said talks were taking place behind the scenes, but raised doubt any of the "red shirt" leaders had full control of the protesters, especially the more militant elements.

Around the city, people were hoarding food, while hotels were pleading for guests to leave. The new school term has been postponed and Monday and Tuesday were declared public holidays, although financial markets and banks remained open.

As fighting subsided in some areas, residents and tourists in the commercial district were seen leaving while they could, with luggage and children in tow. Chulalongkorn Hospital, adjacent to the encampment, had evacuated all of its patients.   Continued...

<p>Anti-government "red shirt" protesters use a petrol truck to block a road during clashes with soldiers in Bangkok May 17, 2010. REUTERS/Kerek Wongsa</p>