Bangkok, May 17 (Reuters): Thai protesters defied warnings to leave central Bangkok as troops closed in on them today,.
However, officials said the army was not planning immediate action to disperse the thousands who say they will fight to the death.
The death today of a renegade major-general, who was the red shirts military adviser and an embarrassment to the military, threatened to further stoke tensions..
Khattiya Sawasdipol, known as Seh Daeng (Commander Red), was shot in the head by a sniper on Thursday, fuelling the latest bout of violence in a five-year crisis pitting rural and urban poor against an establishment elite that has traditionally run Thailand.
An estimated 5,000 of the anti-government protesters hunkered down, listening to fiery political speeches and largely ignoring a 0800GMT deadline to leave the encampment in a commercial district.
We will keep sending warnings to protesters and will slowly step up pressure if they dont go, said Thawil Pliensee, secretary-general of the National Security Council, adding the military had no immediate plans to clear the main camp by force.
Red shirt leaders had proposed a ceasefire and talks moderated by the UN, which the government dismissed out of hand. Today, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said they would accept talks as long as a neutral arbiter took part and troops withdrew.
The government is ready to go forward with negotiations when they end rioting, replied government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.
| Guests in the basement of the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok after a rocket attack triggered gunfire near the hotel. (Reuters)
A government source said talks were taking place behind the scene, but doubted any of the red shirt leaders had full control of the protesters, especially the more militant elements.
Around the city, people were hoarding food, while hotels were urging guests to leave. The new school term has been postponed and today and tomorrow were declared public holidays, although financial markets and banks remained open. As fighting subsided in some areas, residents and tourists in the commercial district were seen leaving while they could, with luggage and children in tow. Chulalongkorn Hospital, adjacent to the encampment, had evacuated all its patients.
Sporadic clashes broke out in some parts of the city, but there were no reports of fresh casualties.
By today, the army had surrounded the encampment in an attempt to block people and supplies from coming and step up pressure on the protesters barricaded behind huge walls of tyres, poles and concrete, topped by razor wire.
Military helicopters dropped leaflets on the camp calling on the protesters to leave immediately, and troops readied buses for any who wanted to leave. However, no one was seen boarding them.
Fighting near the encampment was intense overnight. A rocket hit the 14th floor of the Dusit Thani Hotel, a Reuters photographer said, triggering gunfire from all sides in the pitch darkness, since power had been cut to the area.
Guests at the hotel were evacuated this morning after spending much of the night cowering in the basement.
Fighting erupted in three areas of the city of 15 million people at the weekend as the army struggled to establish th perimeter around an encampment occupying 3sqkm in an area packed with hotels, malls, offices and embassies.
Today, protesters lobbed petrol bombs and rocks, and rolled burning tyres at troops, who returned fire in a run-down area near the business district. An oil tanker was stolen from a petrol station, parked in the road and used as a defensive wall by demonstrators.