Combat troops continued to battle antigovernment "red-shirt" protesters Sunday as unrest spread across Bangkok and Thailand protest leaders called for a United Nations-brokered ceasefire to end a deadly standoff.
Several thousand protesters are holed up inside a downtown rally site that is ringed by troops in an effort to choke off resistance.
Government officials have vowed to retake the site, which abuts the US embassy and has been occupied for over a month. The face-off has fueled fears of a bloodbath as security sources say a faction of protesters is heavily armed.
Much of the fighting in recent days has raged along the fortified perimeter of the site where protesters are burning tires and hurling rocks and explosives at troops, who have recently begun to respond with live rounds.
At least 29 people have died since Thursday night after a renegade red-shirt military officer was shot in the head by an apparent sniper. Some protesters are armed.
Will the UN have a role?
Korbsak Sabhavasu, a senior cabinet minister, rejected any role for the UN in peace talks but said the government was ready for negotiations with red-shirt leaders. “The best way is to sit down and talk now. Don’t put up conditions before talking,” he says.
The government has asked women, children, and the elderly to prepare to evacuate from a temple inside the protest site. Human-rights groups have been asked to monitor any evacuation, Reuters reported.
As troops have sought to seal off the rally site, red shirts have staged protests elsewhere in the capital, raising the possibility that unrest may be spreading. But security sources say these protests remained small and that the priority was strengthening the cordon around the main site.
Food, water, and fuel supplies are running low, and more protesters are leaving, said a senior security official. But the presence of militant leaders and trained fighters would complicate any security sweep of the site. “I don’t think the military will move in anytime soon. We know there are lots of weapons,” he says.
Red-shirt leaders have said that their struggle is peaceful and is aimed at restoring democracy in Thailand.
Much of the recent fighting has been one-sided, with protesters accounting for all the reported deaths and most of the injuries, many from gunshot wounds. Army snipers on tall buildings have been filmed firing toward protesters.
Mr. Korbsak, a close ally of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, denied that the government was preparing for an armed assault. “We will not go in. We never said we will go in. We just want to cordon off the area,” he says.
On Saturday night, Mr. Abhisit said in a televised speech that there would be no retreat in the battle against “armed terrorists”.
He also implied that further casualties were justified, in what observers said was a green light to the military, which has a history of violent repression of protests.
"There is no turning back in our efforts to maintain a legal state," Abhisit said. "Losses will have to be endured. It is the only way to righteousness.”