>Asian sites win UNESCO world heritage status


People wave national flags at the central market in Phnom Penh

Aerial view of the Vauban citadel on the island of Belle-Ile-en-Mer off Morbihan (left).

New Caledonia Barrier Reef in the South Pacific (top right).

QUEBEC CITY (AFP) — A Hindu temple in Cambodia, two historic Malaysian trading towns and an early agricultural site from Papua New Guinea were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List on Monday.

Honored were the 11th century Preah Vihear temple site, perched on a mountaintop on the Thai-Cambodia border; the cities of the Straits of Malacca, Melaka and George Town in Malaysia, and the Kuk Early Agricultural Site in Papua New Guinea, marking the country’s first entry on the list.

Also earning UNESCO heritage recognition was a sweeping part of the coral reef and lagoon around in the French territory of New Caledonia, in the South Pacific east of Australia.

The UNESCO committee has been meeting in this oldest of Canadian cities since Wednesday to consider adding to its coveted list of protected architectural and natural wonders.

A total of 45 new sites were vying for inclusion, with the most controversial the Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodia-Thai border.

Last week, Cambodia deployed riot police to protect the Thai embassy and Thai-owned businesses in Phnom Penh in fear that continued claims to the temple by some Thais could spark violent protests.

In 1962, the World Court ruled that the 11th-century Khmer Empire temple belonged to Cambodia, although the main entrance lies at the foot of a mountain inside Thailand.

The long-standing dispute appeared resolved last month, after Thailand endorsed Cambodia’s plan to seek World Heritage status at the UNESCO meeting.

But the deal sparked a political controversy in Thailand, and last week Cambodia closed the mountaintop temple after more than 100 Thais marched to the compound to protest. A Thai court then forced the government to suspend its endorsement of the plan.

Ambassador Francesco Caruso, special advisor to the director general of UNESCO, told AFP the listing was not meant to prejudice the ongoing dispute.

Rather, it was hoped it might be amended in the future to a bi-national listing of the temple and its contested landscape.

“It could become a mixed natural and architectural site, the door is open. The Cambodians negotiated a listing that opens the door to such future harmony. The Thais are demanding it now,” he said.

The ruins of the Hindu temple are the most important example of ancient Khmer architecture outside of Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat, and have weathered centuries of wars and duelling territorial claims with Thailand.

Built to honour the Hindu god Shiva, Preah Vihear stretches dramatically up to a cliff-top in the Dangrek mountain range.

UNESCO deemed the site exceptional for its location on a plateau with sheer cliffs overlooking a vast plain and mountain range; its rare architecture and the religious function of the temple; and its carved stone ornamentation.

Cambodia began seeking World Heritage status for the temple nearly six years ago.

To date, 862 sites in more than 140 countries have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The UN agency also named as a heritage site 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles) of the New Caledonia lagoon, the world’s second largest continuous coral reef in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier reef.

“We are delighted,” said Isabelle Ohlen, vice president of the New Caledonia Congress.

Also on Monday, the heritage committee included examples of the 17th century military architecture of Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, who built or upgraded more than 300 fortifications along France’s borders.

Other sites added to the UNESCO list include Slovakian wooden churches, German early 20th century low-income housing, the Renaissance towns of Mantua and Sabbioneta in Italy, and the Stari Grad Plain on the Adriatic island of Hvar, farmed for 2,400 years.

San Marino, too, entered the coveted list, said the committee, “as a testimony to the continuity of a free republic since the Middle Ages.”

Its historic center, with its fortification towers, walls, gates and bastions, dates back to the foundation of the republic as a city-state in the 13th century.

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