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Thai government almost ready to clear protesters

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Thailand's prime minister dismissed claims that the armed forces were rent with divisions and said the government was preparing to clear thousands of activists from a protest camp that has virtually paralysed the heart of the capital, the Associated Press reported.

Many Thais have grown increasingly frustrated with the stalemate in Bangkok, which has dragged on for nearly eight weeks, claiming the lives of at least 27 people and costing the country tens of millions of dollars. It has sparked concerns of a flare-up of civil unrest.

"We are sending a clear signal that we have given people enough time to leave (the occupied zone). We are now in the process of sealing off and cutting off support before we actually move in," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in an interview Sunday with several foreign journalists to be nationally televised.

Thousands of so-called Red Shirt protesters have occupied a barricaded encampment in the commercial heart of Bangkok, centered on its most upmarket shopping district, forcing the closure of several malls and hotels.

The Red Shirts, mostly armed with staves and stones, have bested police and military units in several confrontations and the police especially have shown little enthusiasm in suppressing the demonstrations. In several instances, police were seen openly fraternising with protesters, while both Abhisit and army commanders have had to come out on several occasions to deny that the army too was split in its loyalties.

But Abhisit said problems within the armed forces have now been identified. "I can tell you there is unity. The leadership on the military and police understand clearly what needs to be done," he said. "I think it would be unfair to say that the military has been unsuccessful in what they have tried to do. There is now less movement on the part of the Red Shirts."

Abhisit declined to elaborate on an earlier announced plan to end the crisis which he said did not include the declaration of martial law. In an emergency meeting Sunday, the Cabinet approved special funding for the police to contain the demonstrators.

"My belief is that the majority of the people want the protest to end. Increasingly their patience is running out. This is a situation we have to handle," he said in the interview.

The protesters, mostly from the rural and urban poor, view the government as an illegitimate puppet of Bangkok's elite and the military. They are demanding that Abhisit resign, dissolve Parliament and call new elections. Many are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and is now encouraging the protesters from abroad.

But Abhisit said that centralised leadership of the Red Shirts is splintering. "Among the protesters there is less and less control from the top because they have various groups in there and second- and third-tier leaders who are now taking matters into their own hands also," he said.

Abhisit, who has offered to call elections by the end of this year, has rejected the protesters' demands for even quicker elections and publicly suspended talks with the protesters. But he says he still hopes a political solution will persuade the Red Shirts to leave.

Speaking at a closely guarded military camp on the city's outskirts, Abhisit gave no indication when any operation against the entrenched protesters would be launched. But he said the demonstrators, who include a large number of women and children, would be given prior warning.

"I can say that we continue to exercise restraint and patience and the first, best solution is one that does not involve violence," he said. Abhisit said earlier Sunday he was reluctant to give in to demands from a group of pro-establishment protesters who have called for a declaration of martial law.

"So far, from what we have discussed, we (the government and the army) think that the situation doesn't warrant martial law," he said in his weekly television broadcast. The Red Shirts said they would ignore any declaration of martial law anyway.

Since the Red Shirts moved into Bangkok in mid-March, there have been several clashes between protesters and security forces. With negotiations between the protesters and the government on hold and hopes for a peaceful end to the standoff dwindling, calls have grown for international mediation.

The International Crisis Group think tank said Saturday that Thailand's political system had broken down and expressed fears the standoff could "deteriorate into an undeclared civil war."

But Abhisit, in the interview, said that only in three or four of the country's provinces was there "a (protest) movement in parallel with Bangkok that has to be handled. The rest of the country is well under control."


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