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US rebukes Thailand's coup-makers, urges vote

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Thailand's coup leaders are facing fresh international condemnation with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel demanding immediate elections and the release of detainees held by a junta which says there will be no polls for 15 months.

Speaking at an Asian security conference in Singapore on Saturday, the Pentagon chief urged Thailand's military to free scores of people detained under martial law since generals seized power from the civilian government on May 22.

His strong comments, made at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, came as Thai authorities faced the threat of weekend protests in central Bangkok against the army power grab.

Hagel called on the junta to end its curbs on "free expression", which include banning political gatherings of more than five people and sweeping media controls, and for the army to "immediately restore power to the people of Thailand" through elections.

Condemning the kingdom's "retreat from democracy" Hagel said the US had suspended its long-standing military ties with Thailand.

Australia's foreign minister on Saturday also said Canberra had reduced its "engagement" with the Thai military.

Junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha late on Friday gave a rough timetable for a return to democracy, offering polls once a reconciliation drive across the bitterly split nation and a year-long reform period are complete.

"Stage three is a general election under an absolute democratic system that is acceptable to all sides," he said in his first televised address to the nation.

But he warned his roadmap will probably fail "if there are still protests or people do not co-operate".

Since taking power, authorities have overridden the constitution, curtailed civil liberties under martial law and imposed a nightly curfew.

After leading Thailand's 19th actual or attempted putsch in modern history, Prayut ordered the detention of scores of political figures, academics and activists.

Some of the detainees have been freed after signing agreements to renounce political activities, among them several high-profile figures from the Red Shirt movement, which supports the ousted government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Yingluck's billionaire brother Thaksin, a former premier who lives in self-exile, sits at the heart of Thailand's festering eight-year crisis.

Anti-Thaksin demonstrators staged a months-long protest against the government.

Twenty-eight people died and hundreds of others were wounded in political violence linked to those rallies, losses Prayut said left him no choice but to intervene.

AFP

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