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On TV, Thai PM speaks about tensions

A foreign tourist poses in front of Thai soldiers near the anti-government protester camp in Bangkok on Saturday.
A foreign tourist poses in front of Thai soldiers near the anti-government protester camp in Bangkok on Saturday.
  • Thai PM: Did not expect protesters would use weapons
  • PM rejects call from anti-government protesters to dissolve parliament
  • Government urged to lift state of emergency, acknowledge deaths of protesters
  • Country gripped by tension after weeks-long political standoff

Bangkok, Thailand (CNN) -- Thailand's prime minister acknowledged on Sunday he did not expect protesters would use weapons and apply violence toward authority.

Speaking on national television, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva made the admission a day after he rejected a call from anti-government protesters to dissolve the country's parliament in 30 days. Abhisit said other groups' political opinions must be taken into consideration before any such action is taken.

More than two dozen civilians and military personnel have died since protesters began occupying key tourism and shopping areas in Thailand's capital.

The demand from the anti-government protesters, known as the "Red Shirts," was the latest in a long list issued since the group stormed parliament in early April and Abhisit declared a state of emergency.

Red Shirt leaders offered Friday to return to the negotiating table -- but only if the government meets certain demands, including lifting a state of emergency and accepting responsibility for the deaths of protesters earlier this month, said Weng Tojirakarn, a co-leader of the group.

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On the government's side, spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told CNN Saturday that there was no counter-proposal to get the negotiations back on track.

"We need to make sure negotiations take place under a conducive environment," Panitan said, explaining that previous attempts to talk to opposition leaders had been derailed due to threats against government officials.

Other conditions that must be met before any negotiations could take place include having protest leaders make sure there will be no further expansion of demonstrations into other districts and no threats to government officers, the government spokesman said.

"These conditions are very critical for peaceful negotiations," Panitan explained. "Negotiation is the only way out in the end, but... we need to stabilize the situation first."

He cited the fact that several demonstrations were taking place "by different 'shirts' and colors," and said that all demonstrators must observe the rule of law and "peace and civility will be restored first."

His remarks came as tension remained high on the streets of Bangkok, where a political standoff has gripped the country for several weeks. The Red Shirts have been clashing with the Thai military in a Bangkok area that serves as a financial hub. Another co-leader of the Red Shirts, Veera Muskapong, met with foreign diplomats Friday and told them he might meet with the government if it meets certain conditions.

Abhisit, meanwhile, huddled with the chiefs of the country's armed forces early Friday after a string of grenade attacks killed at least one person and wounded dozens of others.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said in a televised address that the grenades were launched from the area where the Red Shirts have been encamped for weeks, but the protesters denied any responsibility for the attacks.

Watch red shirt protests

Suthep told Thai television earlier that three people died in the attacks, but Bangkok's Erawan Emergency and Rescue Center later revised the number to one. At least 87 people were wounded, the center said.

Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, spokesman for the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES), said at his daily news conference Saturday that the protests remain manageable at this time and therefore, authorities would not try to disperse the demonstrations.

He did charge, however, that "terrorists" were interspersed among "innocent demonstrators." The official said authorities would suppress the terrorists at the appropriate time, but did not want to complicate the situation by trying to take action against them now.

Sansern also dismissed rumors of discord between the government, police and military forces, saying that representatives of all those entities were meeting daily to discuss the situation.

Explainer: What are the protests in Thailand about?

The Thai Department of Special Investigation warned Friday that those responsible for the grenade attacks could face the death penalty, the MCOT news agency reported. The attacks prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel alert advising American citizens of the escalating violence in Bangkok.

Suthep said riot police and helicopters were deployed to join Thai troops in the affected area, which was still littered with glass amid the standoff. Across the barricades, the Red Shirts were playing music and trying to encourage a festive atmosphere. Demonstrators told CNN late Thursday they wanted to drive home the point that their rallies are supposed to be peaceful.

Thrown into the volatile mix are a group of protesters who called themselves the Multicolored Shirts, made up of mainly middle-class city dwellers, who took to the streets in large numbers Friday. They are not pro- or anti-government, but simply want the government to shut down the Reds to end the violence and interruptions to daily life.

Some fear that the emergence of such groups could spark a civil war.

"I am so afraid that people will do the wrong thing and think they are brave and fight and they all have arms and that is what I am afraid (of)," said resident Josh Orajan. He said the Thai are all one people and this shouldn't be happening.

The Red Shirts support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless military coup in 2006. They want Abhisit to dissolve the government, hold new elections and leave the country.

CNN's Arwa Damon and Kocha Olarn contributed to this report.