Thai PM meets protest leaders for first time

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The Independent Online

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has held talks with protest leaders in an effort to defuse growing tension and avert possible confrontation after protesters intensified their drive to topple the government.

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".

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.