BANGKOK – Hopes rose Tuesday for an end to deadly mayhem in Thailand’s capital as leaders of the protest movement occupying central Bangkok said they would unconditionally accept an offer by the country’s Senate to mediate talks.
The country’s prime minister was scheduled to announce later Tuesday the government’s response to the latest offer aimed at ending the two-month-long political crisis, which has destabilized a country once regarded as one of Southeast Asia’s most stable democracies.
Scattered clashes continued between soldiers and anti-government Red Shirt protesters, though it appeared at a lower level than previous days. At least 37 people were killed over five days of rioting and clashes in downtown sections of this bustling Asian metropolis of 10 million.
The military defended its use of deadly but limited force, saying troops only fired to protect themselves and Bangkok’s citizens and did not pursue pre-emptive attacks.
“If they don’t move close to us, there won’t be any losses,” army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said. He also accused the Red Shirts of using a child of about three years as a human shield, holding him up above a barricade in the streets.
The government also announced that a two-day public holiday was being extended to Friday.
Tuesday’s acceptance of the Senate proposal by the Red Shirt protest leaders was significant because they had previously set conditions for any talks. The government had rejected earlier offers for talks that included demands to withdraw troops and submit to U.N. mediation.
The Red Shirts have for a month occupied a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) chunk of downtown Bangkok’s toniest real estate, camping in the streets next to shuttered five-star hotels and upscale shopping malls.
The protesters, many of whom hail from the impoverished north and northeast, are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve Parliament and call early elections. They say the current administration came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it goes against results of a 2007 election to restore democracy after a military coup.
The standoff deteriorated into street clashes last Thursday after the military surrounded entrances to the protest zone in an attempt to cut off supplies of food and water.
The United Nations urged a negotiated solution, saying Monday that “there is a high risk that the situation could spiral out of control” and urging the military to show restraint and the protesters to “step back from the brink.”
The country’s upper house of Parliament offered Monday to broker negotiations between the warring sides providing they both stopped the violence.
On Tuesday, a Red Shirt leader, Weng Tojirakarn, told a news conference “we accept the proposal from the Senate.” Another protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, said, “It would not be right if I set conditions for the Senate.”
Previous attempts to negotiate an end to the standoff have failed. A government offer earlier this month to hold November elections fell apart after protest leaders made more demands.
Both sides Monday evening also revealed that the government’s chief negotiator and a Red Shirt leader had discussed negotiations in a mobile telephone call — though the government’s chief negotiator said the two sides remained far apart.
Thai media on Monday reported that 55 senators had laid down a peace plan that called for an end to violence by both the protesters and government. Details of the plan were not immediately available.
Meanwhile, violence continued on Bangkok’s streets with security forces arresting a 12-year-old boy Tuesday morning for allegedly setting fire to several houses during the mayhem. TV reports showed that the four empty townhouses were adjacent to a branch of the Bangkok Bangkok bank, which has been a target of protesters, who claim it has close connections to the government.
At least 37 people — mostly civilians — have been killed and 266 wounded since the government began the blockade last Thursday. Most of the unrest has flared outside the camp, with troops firing live ammunition at roaming protesters who have lit tires to hide their positions.
The political conflict is Thailand’s deadliest and most prolonged in decades, and each passing day of violence deeply divides in this nation of 65 million — a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.
Another government deadline for protesters to leave their encampment in the upscale Rajprasong district came and went Monday with no apparent mass exodus.
It was not clear how many people were left at the Rajprasong camp Tuesday, but the government said 3,000 people remained, down from 5,000 on Sunday and 10,000 last week. The numbers could not be independently confirmed.
Authorities have not spelled out what would happen after the deadline to leave the encampment, but there are concerns it could precede a crackdown.
A previous army attempt to disperse the protesters on April 10 — when they had congregated in a different area of Bangkok — left 25 people dead.
According to government figures, 66 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in Bangkok in March.
Associated Press writers Denis D. Gray, Jocelyn Gecker, Thanyarat Doksone, and Chris Blake contributed to this report. Additional research by Warangkana Tempati and Sinfah Tunsarawuth.