By SOPHENG CHEANG
PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia and Thailand escalated their troop buildup Thursday in disputed territory near a historic border temple despite their agreement to hold talks next week to defuse tensions, a Cambodian general said.
Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said Thailand has more than 400 troops near the Preah Vihear temple, up from about 200 the day before, and Cambodia has about 800, up from 380.
Cambodia claims the Thai troops crossed the border into Cambodian territory on Tuesday in renewed tensions over land near the Cambodian temple. Thailand maintains it is protecting its sovereignty and ensuring that any protests by Thais near the temple remain orderly, although a senior Thai military official acknowledged Wednesday that the troops were on “disputed” ground.
The border around Preah Vihear has never been fully demarcated.
In a letter to his Thai counterpart seen by The Associated Press, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urged Thailand to withdraw its troops from the border area.
Thailand’s Air Chief Marshal Chalit Phukbhasuk said the military was prepared to fly Thai nationals out of Cambodia if the dispute spiraled out of control.
“We are well prepared for the operation,” Chalit said.
Yet despite the official rhetoric, the atmosphere around the temple appeared relaxed.
Cambodian soldiers snapped photographs of their opponents just yards away and some tourists, including an American women, visited the spectacular site.
The long-standing conflict over the territory was recently revived by Thai anti-government protesters and came to a head after Cambodia’s application for World Heritage Site status for the temple was granted last week with the endorsement of Thailand’s government.
Both countries claim 1.8 square miles around the temple, and the Thai protesters have revived nationalist sentiments over the issue, fearing the temple’s new status will jeopardize claims to the land nearby.
However, Thais living just across the border sought to calm the situation.
Hundreds of villagers in Sisaket province blocked a group of Thai anti-government protesters from marching to Preah Vihear on Thursday. Some shouted at the protesters to “go home” and stop fomenting trouble, as police stood by a barricade blocking the road to the temple.
“We are Thais. We should be able to talk about this” to settle any differences, villager Ubondej Panthep said.
One protest leader, Pramoj Hoimook, said Cambodians have settled on Thai soil “and we want to correct that.”
“We want to get to Preah Vihear to read a statement, asking for our land back,” he said.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej condemned the Thai protesters for “trying to ignite a conflict.”
“Now the troops on both sides are confronting each other. What madness is this? There are people who want to provoke this,” Samak told reporters, referring to anti-government protesters who have seized on the issue in attempts to bring down his government.
The two countries’ defense ministers are to meet next Monday to ease tensions.
Samak called for a meeting of all armed forces commanders in Bangkok on Friday in preparation for the meeting.
Hun Sen meanwhile urged in his letter to Samak “to ease the tension and order Thai troops to withdraw.”
Earlier Khieu Kanharith said Cambodia would not “use force unless attacked” and that the “situation was stable.”
Thai army commander Gen. Anupong Paojindasaid likewise said he ordered his troops not to use force.
Most of the 900 Cambodian villagers living nearby fled their homes when the confrontation began Tuesday. However, some Cambodian and foreign tourists risked possible harm Thursday by visiting the temple. One of them was Liz Shura from New York City.
“It’s a little frightening for me, but I don’t think I am actually in danger,” Shura told an Associated Press reporter, discounting the possibility of violence. “The temple is extraordinary. It’s really amazing.”
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.
Associated Press writers Sutin Wannabovorn and Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, and Ker Munthit in Phnom Penh contributed to this report.