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World News

Thai PM holds talks with protest leaders

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva held talks with protest leaders on Sunday in an effort to defuse growing tension and avert possible confrontation after protesters intensified their drive to topple the government.

Supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rally outside the base of Thai Army 11th Infantry Regiment in Bangkok March 28, 2010. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang

Abhisit held almost three hours of televised talks with leaders of the movement, who broadly support twice-elected former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, but there was no sign of progress towards ending the deadlock.

The embattled premier, who has spent much of the past two weeks at a military base, has refused to bow to demands for a new election, arguing that the country is too divided to go to the polls.

He smiled and promptly concluded the talks after one leader, Jatuporn Prompan, asked him to dissolve parliament within two weeks. “I don’t think we need to have ultimatums or deadlines,” Abhisit said.

“I’m willing to have more talk like this, hopefully a second round, a third round and you can protest all you want. If we try to draw a dividing line, things will not be over,” he added.

After two weeks of peaceful rallies, the “red shirts” have stepped up their campaign to topple the government with a new level of brinkmanship that has raised tension and stoked fears of clashes between demonstrators and security forces.

Abhisit agreed to meet the leaders after tens of thousands of protesters rallied outside the military command centre where he has based himself.

They were close to entering Abhisit’s office compound on Saturday, having forced thousands of troops to pack up and leave eight sites around the city’s historic heart.

They stepped up the protest tempo two days after Thaksin, the ousted, exiled premier who is assumed to be their leader and financier, called for a campaign of “civil disobedience.”

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Securities analysts said the raising of the stakes was unlikely to dampen the mood of foreign investors who have piled into Thailand’s stock market, one of Asia’s cheapest.

They were net buyers for a 24th straight session on Friday, adding to the $1.5 billion of inflows since February 22.

But the protests highlight a deepening divide in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, which has made some investors think twice about longer-term expansion in a country once seen as a safe bet for business.

MYSTERIOUS ATTACKS

The threat of unrest and a slew of mysterious but non-fatal grenade attacks and small bombings have left the city of 15 million people on edge. No one has claimed responsibility.

Grenade attacks late on Saturday and early Sunday on three state or army-run television stations and the military base where Abhisit took refuge wounded 12 soldiers and 4 civilians.

Late on Sunday, gunmen opened fire on a branch of Bangkok Bank, shattering windows.

Analysts have said Abhisit, strongly backed by the military and Thailand’s establishment elites, is unlikely to make any real concessions and predicted talks would be fruitless.

The talks were due to resume on Monday evening.

The “red shirts” have accused him of being a stooge of the anti-Thaksin army top brass, who they say engineered political defections that helped Abhisit form a government. He denies that and says his rule is legitimate.

When protest leaders raised the issue of military intervention in politics, television stations censored the discussion.

The Oxford-educated Abhisit, who came to power in a parliamentary vote in December 2008 after the pro-Thaksin ruling party was disbanded, must call a new election by the end of next year, and analysts say Thaksin’s allies are likely to win it.

Abhisit told the protest leaders he would not necessarily wait until the end of his term to call fresh polls, adding that dissolving parliament would not end the crisis.

“I never said that I will be here until the term ends,” he said. “I can guarantee you that whatever benefits the country, that is what I will go for.”

Writing by Martin Petty; editing by Tim Pearce

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