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No quick end in sight to prolonged Thai protests

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Hopes faded in Thailand on Thursday for a swift end to weeks of anti-government protests after both sides accused each other of insincerity and squabbled over details of a reconciliation plan calling for November polls, reported Reuters.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he would dissolve parliament in the second half of September as part of a five-point plan announced this week to end a crisis that has killed 27 people and wounded more than 1,000.

But that failed to convince thousands of the mostly rural and urban poor "red shirt" protesters who refused to budge from a 3 sq km stretch of upscale department stores, luxury hotels and expensive apartments they have occupied since April 3.

"We still have problems with many issues," Nattawut Saikua, a protest leader, told reporters. They had yet to agree to Abhisit's offer of a November 14 election, he said.

The supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra appeared to be setting up for an even longer stay in what has become a tented city-within-a-city.

Hundreds will arrive overnight from the northeast, a Thaksin stronghold, said another protest leader, Kwanchai Paipanna.

Earlier, more mobile washrooms were brought in and elevated wooden planks were laid on the ground to avoid rain-slicked streets as the tropical monsoon season begins.

Nattawut questioned whether Abhisit's plan had the support of the government's traditional backers after a yellow-shirted protest group representing the interests of the royalist aristocracy and elite establishment condemned it.

The "yellow shirts," whose eight-day occupation of Bangkok's airport in 2008 helped bring down a Thaksin-allied government, said Abhisit should resign if he cannot enforce the law and end the occupation of Bangkok's main shopping district.

Abhisit's plan, they added, could pave the way for an amnesty for banned politicians allied with Thaksin, a multi-millionaire populist ousted in a 2006 military coup who lives in self-imposed exile following a conviction on corruption charges.

"That would be a collusion of the government and terrorists and a betrayal of the public," the group's spokesman, Suriyasai Katasila, told reporters.

The red shirts had demanded immediate elections and say the ruling coalition lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote 17 months ago.

They targeted the shopping district as a symbol of wealth out of reach to rural masses in a country with one of Asia's widest income disparities.

Protest leaders are demanding a specific date for dissolution of parliament -- a technicality analysts said was probably an excuse to negotiate better terms or to help protest leaders escape possible terrorism charges once the rally ends.

Abhisit said dissolution would take place between September 15-30 under laws requiring that parliament be dissolved 45 to 60 days before an election. If the red shirts remained on the streets he would not dissolve parliament at all, he said.

"If they show insincerity ... I won't dissolve parliament," he said. Protest leaders remained sceptical.

"The reconciliation plan is very vague and Abhisit's promise is slippery. We have to make sure what we are getting before we declare victory," said Weng Tojirakarn, another protest leader.

The stock market fell 1.5 percent as trade resumed a day after a public holiday, broadly in line with Asian markets. The baht was also softer, as were regional peers.

Retailers at Southeast Asia's second-largest shopping mall, Central World, had lost $37 million during the protests, said Central Pattana PCL, which manages the mall in the centre of the protest site.

But negotiations to end the stalemate could be tough.

Among other demands, the red shirts want the government to lift a state of emergency and remove troops near the site before they leave, a request the government is unlikely to meet.

Analysts say both sides want to be in power in September for a reshuffle of the powerful military and police forces, and for the passing of the national budget.

Anything short of that would be a setback for thousands who have lived on Bangkok's streets since mid-March and have been emboldened by an April 10 clash in which some lost their lives.

"I am not sure I will be satisfied if the election is in November. Is that all we are getting after all this?" said Nitsara Saengkam, a 48-year-old woman preparing a papaya salad for fellow protesters.


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