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 February 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.

Thai EC says PM, Suthep's willingness to talk a good sign

Thailand's Election Commission said willingness shown by Prime Minister and protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban to hold talks is a positive sign despite differences over the pre-condition set by the opposition.

Election Commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn said a format acceptable to both sides had to be found before the talks.

Suthep, who since weeks has been refusing to hold any form of talks with the government, yesterday offered to hold one-on-one talks with the caretaker premier on the condition that this would beamed live.

Yingluck expressed her reservations over the condition set by Suthep and said she wants to know whether he is ready to hold talks under the framework of the Constitution or not.

Somchai said Yingluck's willingness to hold talks with Suthep was a good sign. He said both sides must stop violence and prove their sincerity for holding talks.

"They must stop their sides from causing violence but so far there is no such a sign," the Nation quoted Somchai as saying.

He said he believed that violence was caused by certain groups which did not want to see negotiations.

(Agencies)

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