>Cambodian, Thai troops in stand-off

>Thai soldiers (L) and Cambodian soldiers (R) walk past each other casually yesterday.

18/07/2008

Cambodian and Thai soldiers held their positions on the border near an ancient temple yesterday as a stand-off over a territorial dispute entered its third day.

More than 400 Thai troops and more than 800 Cambodian soldiers stood stationed around a small Buddhist pagoda on the slope of a mountain leading to the ruins of the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple.

Commander-in-chief of the army at Preah Vihear Brigadier Chea Keo said that the situation could worsen if the Thais continued to swell their ranks.

”If the Thais keep adding more troops the situation will escalate, but we try to be patient,” Brigadier Chea Keo said. ”They want us to do something first but we try to remain calm.” Groups of Cambodian soldiers based at the foot of the mountain were redeployed to the temple at the top, armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers.

Thai soldiers were all stationed inside the pagoda compound, around the wooden structure that had a corrugated metal roof.

The brigadier acknowledged that the Thai army had superior weapons but said the Cambodians were in a better position at the top of the mountain.

Cambodian officials claim soldiers began crossing the border on Tuesday after three Thai protesters were arrested for jumping an immigration checkpoint to reach the temple. Thailand denies the trespass and insists the soldiers were patrolling its side of the border but Cambodian troops on the scene say the Thai soldiers have crossed more than 100m outside their territory.

An area of 4.6sqkm on the border remains in dispute between the two countries after the World Court in 1962 determined the Preah Vihear ruins belonged to Cambodia, though its most accessible entrance lies in Thailand.

A Thai soldier was injured by a landmine in the area on Tuesday but the Thai military says the landmine was planted on Thai soil, possibly a remnant from the decades of war that once plagued the border.

Brigadier Chea Keo said some 70 per cent of Cambodians who lived in the area had left their homes during the confrontation.

Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, had had ”a cordial and amicable phone conversation” about the dispute. Delegates led by their defence ministers would meet on Monday in Thailand to discuss the issue.

The dispute comes amid heightened political tensions in both countries after the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO awarded the temple World Heritage status earlier this month.

Cambodia is preparing for general elections on July 27, when its leader, Hun Sen, is expected to extend his decades-long grip on power. He has portrayed the UN recognition of the ruins as a national triumph, organising huge public celebrations.

In Thailand, critics of Mr Samak already the target of street protests have stoked the temple controversy to fire up nationalist sentiment. His Government had originally signed a deal supporting Cambodia’s bid to make the ruins a World Heritage site, but a court overturned the pact, forcing the resignation of foreign minister Noppadon Pattama. AFP/AP

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