Thai anti-govt protesters target PM again despite hint of talks

BANGKOK - Protesters in Thailand said they will rally at ministries and companies linked to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Friday, keeping up pressure on her to resign despite a vague proposal of talks from their leader.

The protesters have blocked big intersections in the capital, Bangkok, since mid-January and forced many ministries to close as part of a four-month campaign to push out Yingluck and eradicate the political influence of her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, seen as the real power in Thailand.

Violence has grown, with almost daily gun and grenade attacks around protest sites by unidentified people. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban suggested on Thursday that he and Yingluck should hold a televised debate.

However, in a speech to supporters late on Thursday, Suthep showed his more combative side, directly blaming Yingluck for two attacks on protesters at the weekend in which five people were killed, including four children.

"You have murdered four young, innocent children, Yingluck,"he said, challenging her supporters in the rural north and northeast of the country to a fight in the capital.

"Come to Bangkok and try to start a civil war," he said."Let's see who can assemble more people, come on."

Yingluck, speaking from the northern city of Chiang Mai, gave a guarded response to the idea of a debate.

"The talks have to have a framework, though I am not sure what that framework would look like," she said on Thursday. "But many parties have to be involved because I alone cannot answer on behalf of the Thai people."

The crisis broadly pits middle-class Bangkokians and southern anti-government demonstrators, backed by the royalist establishment, against the largely rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin.

After a period of relative calm following Yingluck's sweeping election victory in 2011, opposition swelled after her government tried to push through a political amnesty that would have let Thaksin return from self-imposed exile without having to serve a jail sentence for graft charges he says were politically motivated.

Thaksin was toppled by the army in 2006. The military has tried to stay above the fray this time but Yingluck is still facing multiple challenges from the courts, which threw out two governments allied to Thaksin in 2008.

On Thursday she was formally served with charges of negligence relating to a government rice subsidy programme that has failed disastrously, leaving hundreds of thousands of farmers unpaid and costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

Yingluck faces removal from office and a five-year ban from politics if she is found guilty. She has until March 14 to try to refute the charges, after which the anti-corruption agency will decide whether to take the case further.

She called an election for Feb. 2 to try to end the crisis but it was disrupted by the protesters and it is unclear when voting can be held in those areas where it was not completed.

The protesters want to set up a "people's council" of unspecified worthy people to force through political and electoral changes before a new election is held, hoping that will stop parties loyal to Thaksin from winning.