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Thai army chief convenes crisis talks between political rivals

Thailand's military convened crisis talks Wednesday between warring political rivals, vowing to stop the kingdom degenerating into another "Ukraine or Egypt" after imposing martial law to suppress months of street bloodshed.

BANGKOK: Thailand's military convened crisis talks Wednesday between warring political rivals, vowing to stop the kingdom degenerating into another "Ukraine or Egypt" after imposing martial law to suppress months of street bloodshed.

US-led pressure grew for a return to civilian control but the Thai military, which has intervened repeatedly in politics down the decades, said it would respect international law and use force "only for issues of security".

Television footage showed army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha chairing the meeting in Bangkok on Wednesday afternoon.

It was to include top officials of the ruling and opposition parties and of the election commission and Senate, as well as the heads of the pro- and anti-government protest camps.

Caretaker Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, who replaced Yingluck Shinawatra after a controversial court ruling ousted her this month, was invited but did not attend because he was busy with other matters, a government official told AFP, declining to elaborate.

Five top government ministers took his place.

Niwattumrong has called for fresh elections on August 3. But the opposition wants vaguely defined reforms first to tackle graft and has vowed to stay on the streets until it has eradicated what it calls the "regime" of Yingluck's exiled elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra.

Prayuth invoked martial law Tuesday, saying that he had to act because political tensions have spiralled following extended and deadly anti-government protests -- a move critics branded a de facto coup.

"This must be resolved swiftly before I retire, otherwise I won't retire," Prayuth, who is due to step down at the end of September, said Tuesday, according to a transcript of remarks released by the military.

"I will not allow Thailand to be like Ukraine or Egypt."

The military intervened after nearly seven months of protests that have left 28 people dead and hundreds wounded.

In a new sign of its weakening hold on power, the caretaker cabinet was barred from using its emergency headquarters at a defence ministry office in the north of the capital.

"The government is now using a safe house," said the government official who spoke to AFP.

Bangkok was calm Wednesday, with unfazed Thais going about their business and the city's bustling street life carrying on amid a noticeably lighter military presence compared to the day before.

But Tuesday's dispatch of armed troops to the streets, the shutdown of more than a dozen television stations, and the sweeping powers assumed by the military have raised concerns about the future of democracy.

The military can now ban public gatherings, restrict people's movements, conduct searches, impose curfews and detain suspects for up to seven days.

Late Tuesday four more satellite television stations were ordered to suspend broadcasts, bringing to 14 the number shut down.

Social media and other websites were instructed not to distribute "provocative" material or criticism of martial law.

The military also issued an order that appeared to ban media outlets from interviewing anyone other than current government or military officials.

Thailand's longtime ally the United States said it did not believe the army had staged a coup -- avoiding sanctions required under US law -- but urged it to respect democracy.

"The army has stated publicly that it would be a temporary action. We expect them to abide by their commitment," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

She said the United States was encouraging the military to protect "civil liberties and freedom of speech and freedom of media".

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement urging "full respect for democratic principles and engagement in democratic processes", while the European Union called for "a clear timetable" for a snap election.

The military left in place the caretaker government in office since the dismissal of Yingluck, whose brother Thaksin was himself ousted as prime minister in a 2006 coup.

Anti-government protesters claim he still manipulates the government from exile.

Parties led by Thaksin or his allies have won every election over the past dozen years, to the dismay of an entrenched Bangkok-based elite who accuse him of corruption and posing a threat to the monarchy.

Timeline: Thailand's Political Unrest





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