(AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday Jul 15, 2008.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia on Tuesday claimed that 170 Thai troops and civilians crossed into the country’s territory amid rising tensions in a dispute over land near an ancient border temple.
Thai military officials denied any incursion, insisting its troops had simply deployed near a disputed border area “to protect our sovereignty.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who is also the chief government spokesman, said 170 troops and Thai civilians had crossed into Cambodian territory. He could not say how many civilians were among the group.
The dispute has been stoked by Thai anti-government activists and escalated when UNESCO declared the temple a World Heritage Site earlier this month.
Khieu Kanharith’s estimate was far higher than one provided earlier by Hang Soth, director-general of the national authority for Preah Vihear temple, who claimed that 40 Thai troops crossed the disputed border near Preah Vihear temple, center of a long-standing quarrel between the neighbors.
Hang Soth later confirmed the 170 figure, adding that the troops were all armed and refused to pull back because “they said they are waiting for order from their superior.”
“Confrontation is occurring between Thai troops and our Cambodian troops, but there is no shooting yet,” Hang Soth said, adding the two sides were in the midst of negotiations. “Our troops have been ordered to be on alert but not to fire first.”
At least one Thai soldier was injured, losing his leg in a land mine explosion while patrolling the area, said Thai Army Deputy Spokesman Col. Sirichan Ngathong.
Stretches of the Thai-Cambodian border still seethe with land mines sown by various sides during the 1970-75 Cambodian civil war and the guerrilla conflict that followed the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
Maj. Gen. Kanok Netakawesana, a Thai army field commander in the region, said earlier in a telephone interview that his troops were on Thai soil close to the disputed area. He declined to give the number of soldiers deployed. He could not be reached for further comment Tuesday evening.
“We are not violating the territory of Cambodia. We have every right to deploy troops here to protect our sovereignty,” Kanok said.
Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat denied any incursion, saying the relationship between the two countries remained normal.
The Thai troop movements followed the arrest by Cambodia of three Thai citizens for allegedly crossing the border earlier in the day. Hang Soth said the three were released to Thai authorities in the afternoon.
Last week, UNESCO declared Preah Vihear temple a World Heritage site despite objection from Thai groups. The two countries both claim the land that surrounds the temple, and Thai activists have recently revived nationalist sentiment over the issue.
In 1962, the International Court of Justice awarded Preah Vihear and the land it occupies to Cambodia, a decision that still rankles many Thais even though the temple is culturally Cambodian, sharing the Hindu-influenced style of the more famous Angkor complex in northwestern Cambodia.
Cambodia’s move to secure landmark status for the temple has angered political leaders in Thailand and sparked small protests by some Thais who feared it would jeopardize their country’s claims to land adjacent to the site.
Domestic opponents of Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej also have seized on the issue in attempts to bring down his government.