BANGKOK — The tense standoff between thousands of Thai protesters and soldiers entered its sixth day today after negotiators for both sides spoke for the first time since Bangkok was gripped by spasms of violence.
The United Nations urged a negotiated solution, saying "there is a high risk that the situation could spiral out of control." Despite tentative talk Monday of a cease-fire, the government's chief negotiator said the two sides remain far apart.
At least 37 people have died since the government began a blockade last week on the protesters' sprawling camp — which they have occupied for more than a month in a bid to force the government from power, turning the capital's upscale commercial district into a barricaded demonstration site.
Another government deadline passed Monday for the thousands of protesters to vacate the barricaded protest zone or face up to two years in prison. More unrest flared outside the barricades in various parts of the downtown area Monday, with troops firing live ammunition at protesters who were lighting tires to hide their positions.
The Thai government said late Monday it would accept a cease-fire offer from a "Red Shirt" protest leader if their fighters end raging street battles and return to their main camp.
Red Shirt protest leader Nattawut Saikuwa called the government's chief negotiator, Korbsak Sabhavasu, on his mobile phone Monday, Korbsak said. It was the first direct talks between the sides since the fighting started Thursday, though Korbsak said it was unlikely to achieve much as the sides still remained far apart.
Nattawut's response was not immediately known. Calls to his phone went unanswered.
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights called for restraint on both sides and more talks. "To prevent further loss of life, I appeal to the protesters to step back from the brink, and the security forces to exercise maximum restraint," commissioner Navi Pillay said in a statement from Geneva. "Ultimately, this situation can only be resolved by negotiation."
The Red Shirts, many of whom hail from the impoverished north and northeast, are trying to unseat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and force immediate elections.
They say that the coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military and that it symbolizes a national elite indifferent to their plight.