By NBF News

AUTHORITIES in Thailand yesterday rejected a proposal for peace talks with leaders of the Red Shirt protesters to end the deadly mayhem gripping Bangkok, saying negotiations could not start until the protesters disperse.

The decision dashed hopes of stemming the crisis after five days of violence that has left 38 people dead and destabilised a country once regarded as one of Southeast Asia's strongest democracies. Thousands of Red Shirts, mostly rural poor, remain camped behind barricades to press their demand for quick national elections.

Cabinet minister Satit Wonghnongtaey quoted the prime minister as saying he welcomed negotiations to halt the violence but that 'talks will happen only after the protest has ended.'

Yesterday's televised comments came in response to an offer made earlier in the day by Red Shirt protest leaders, who said they would unconditionally accept an offer by the country's Senate to mediate between the two sides.

The protesters' acceptance was significant, since they had previously set conditions for any talks.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, according to the Associated Press (AP) called the Senate speaker to convey the government's position, Satit said. He said Abhisit asked the Senate to maintain contact with Red Shirt leaders and urge them to end their protest.

Scattered clashes continued between soldiers and the anti-government Red Shirts, though confrontations appeared less intense than in previous days.

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 young child as a human shield, holding him up above a barricade in the streets.

The government announced that a two-day public holiday was being extended to Friday because of the security situation.

The Red Shirts have for a month occupied a one-square-mile (three-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 Abhisit 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.

Both sides on 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.

A Red Shirt leader, Weng Tojirakarn, told a news conference, 'We accept the proposal from 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.

At least 38 people – mostly civilians – have been killed and 295 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. Earlier this week the military declared a Bangkok neighbourhood where intense rioting broke out a 'Live Fire Zone.'

According to government figures, now 67 people have died and more than 1,700 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in Bangkok in March.

Amnesty International called on the military to stop firing live ammunition in its bid to suppress the protest.

'The government cannot allow soldiers to essentially shoot at anyone within an area it wishes to control,' the London-based Amnesty said in a statement, adding it was 'unacceptable under international law and standards, which provide that firearms may be used only as a last resort.'

Another government deadline for protesters to leave their encampment in the upscale Rajprasong district came and went on Monday with no apparent mass exodus, despite threats of two year jail terms for those who stayed. Authorities have not spelled out what would happen after the deadline but there are concerns it could precede a crackdown.

It was not clear how many people were left there yesterday. The government said 3,000 people remained, down from 5,000 on Sunday and 10,000 last week.

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.