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Thai protesters refuse to leave, push new demands
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai anti-government protesters refused on Monday to end a crippling two-month demonstration until the nation's deputy prime minister faces criminal charges over a clash with troops in April that killed 25 people.
The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), better known as the "red shirts," accepted a timetable for November 14 elections, but set a new condition that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban be formally charged by police.
The demand doused speculation of an imminent end to a crisis that has killed 29 people, paralyzed an upscale commercial district at a cost to retailers of more than $30 million, decimated Thailand's lucrative tourism industry and squeezed Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.
"Once Suthep turns himself in to the police, the UDD will disperse and return home," Nattawut Saikua, one of the protest leaders, told supporters.
Police said Suthep had agreed to report to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) at 8:30 a.m. (0130 GMT) on Tuesday.
But while he will hear complaints filed against him by the protesters for "malfeasance which resulted in deaths and injuries of civilians," according to DSI chief Tharit Pengdith, he faces no formal charges for now. That is unlikely to placate the reds.
"If he goes there just to listen to his accusations or to have a few pictures taken, then it really means nothing to us,"
said Jatuporn Prompan, another red shirt leader, adding the protesters want police to issue an arrest warrant for Suthep.
Nattawut dismissed Suthep's appearance before the DSI as political theater that would not satisfy the protesters. The agency is connected to the Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situation, which is directed by Suthep.
"It shows Suthep may just be playing a political game," Nattawut told Reuters, adding that protesters want "clear signs that the government will acknowledge their part in the violence."
The chances of that are remote.
"The government will never do that because if they do, they would be admitting guilt in resorting to violence against the protesters," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Suthep has denied he should be held responsible for deaths on April 10, when troops clashed with protesters in a chaotic gun battle in Bangkok's old quarter that killed 20 civilians and five soldiers, and wounded more than 800 people.
The government blames the killings on "terrorists" working with the red shirts, whose leaders have promised to turn themselves in to police on May 15 to answer terrorism charges.
Although they refused to leave the streets, the mostly rural and working-class protesters accepted a timeframe for a general election proposed by the government, including plans to dissolve parliament in the second half of September.
But denouncing the government as "tyrants" and "murderers," their leaders set other conditions, including ending a ban on satellite transmissions of the People's Channel, a television station used by the red shirts to mobilize supporters.
After weekend gun and grenade attacks that killed two police officers and wounded 13 people, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had said he wanted a "clear answer" on Monday to his national reconciliation offer, which includes the November election.
The authorities are faced with the dilemma of how to dislodge thousands of protesters, including women and children, from a fortified encampment sprawling across 3 sq km (1.2 sq mile) of an upmarket central Bangkok shopping district.
Unlike Abhisit, Suthep does not have parliamentary immunity after resigning as a lawmaker last year when the National Counter Corruption Commission ruled he had violated the constitution by holding shares in businesses linked to the government.
Thai stocks rose more than 1 percent on Monday, less than some other Asian bourses, which jumped on optimism over a European Union plan to help indebted euro zone countries.
"A rejection of the plan will be a setback to the peace efforts over the ongoing political impasse and could see reduced foreign inflows into the stock market," said Sukit Udomsirikul, a senior analyst at Siam City Securities.
Central bank assistant governor Suchada Kirakul told Reuters Thailand saw $800 million foreign capital outflows last week, but added that the political instability had had little direct impact on the baht currency.
The red shirts, who broadly support ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have been demonstrating since mid-March, at first demanding immediate elections.
The protests are the latest installment of a political crisis that stretches back to 2005 and has exposed a deep fault line in Thai society, pitting the poor and rural masses against the urban middle classes and traditional, royalist elite.
Abhisit does not have to call an election until the end of 2011 but has offered the November poll as a way to end a crisis.
The red shirts say the ruling coalition has no mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote 17 months ago orchestrated by the army's top brass.
(Additional reporting by Vithoon Amorn, Ploy Ten Kate and Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Andrew Marshall)
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