Thai military chief rebuffs protesters' intervention plea

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's military chief on Saturday shrugged off an opposition rally leader's appeal to intervene in support of protester efforts to topple the government and install an unelected "people's council".

Weeks of boisterous demonstration have gripped Bangkok in the latest political turmoil for the putsch-prone nation, prompting premier Yingluck Shinawatra to call snap elections for Feb 2 to try and calm tensions.

But the vote has been rejected by demonstrators, who have vowed to keep up their fight to rid the country of the influence of Yingluck's divisive brother Thaksin, a former Thai prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup.

Responding to calls by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban to "stand by the people", the country's head of defence forces Thanasak Patimaprakorn said the "best way to solve the problem is through negotiation".

"Neutral observers should oversee the election and make sure it takes place on Feb 2," he told a forum, which was also attended by the powerful army chief as well as the heads of the navy and airforce - but not the government or pro-Thaksin groups.

Suthep used the Bangkok meeting, the first public talks between the generals and protesters, to ask the military to step in on his side and "finish" the stand-off.

The military has a long history of political involvement in Thailand, which has had 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932.

But the army has indicated a reluctance to intervene directly in the current political crisis, although military chiefs did facilitate private talks between Suthep and Yingluck on Dec 1.

Experts say the generals may be wary of unleashing fresh turbulence in the kingdom, which has been gripped by periodic bouts of sometimes bloody unrest since Thaksin was deposed.

The political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite backed by the military against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin, who lives in self-exile in Dubai.

Yingluck's ruling Puea Thai Party is widely expected to win the upcoming vote, bolstered by Thaksin's enduring popularity.

Parties allied to the tycoon have won every election since 2001, most recently with a landslide victory for Puea Thai in 2011.

Suthep said he wanted Yingluck to step down before the election, creating a "power vacuum" that could be filled by his proposed handpicked council.

Five people have been killed and more than 200 injured in violence during the current protests.

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