(AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian general said Friday that his troops and Thai soldiers engaged in a tense armed confrontation when Cambodian monks sought to celebrate Buddhist lent near a temple in a disputed border area.
The two sides, their guns drawn, faced off late Thursday at a pagoda about 650 feet from the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, but the Cambodians eventually pulled back from what could have blown up into an international incident, Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said.
“We exercised patience to prevent weapons from being fired,” he said.
A Thai army spokeswoman said she was not aware of anything taking place in the border dispute, which entered its fourth day Friday.
The simmering conflict over territory surrounding the ancient temple came to a head last week when UNESCO approved Cambodia’s application for World Heritage Site status for the temple. Thai activists fear the new status will undermine Thailand’s claim to nearby land since the border has never been demarcated.
Thai soldiers entered the surrounding area Tuesday, staking out positions at a nearby Buddhist temple compound. However, some resident Cambodian monks remained and Cambodian soldiers have continued to visit them.
Chea Keo said 50 Cambodian soldiers went to the pagoda compound Thursday planning to spend the night, but the two sides raised their rifles at each other when the Thais moved to evict them. The standoff lasted about 10 minutes before the Cambodians departed, he said.
Tensions appeared to have eased Friday, with soldiers from both countries at times mingling and talking. Still, both countries added reinforcements ahead of a scheduled meeting Monday between military leaders to discuss the dispute.
“The premier is very concerned about the tension,” Thai Lt. Gen. Surapon Puenaiyakarn said after a meeting between Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and Thai armed forces commanders Friday. “But he is optimistic that the meeting Monday will provide a positive and peaceful solution.”
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote a letter to Samak on Thursday saying relations had been “worsening” since Thai troops “encroached on our territory,” and asked Samak to pull them back.
The dispute has taken a toll on tourism in the area, with the Thai side closed to visitors and the U.S. Embassy recommending Friday that American citizens “defer travel to this area until the situation has been resolved.”
It also is starting to hurt economic relations between the two neighbors. On Friday, about 200 Thai construction workers returned home from Cambodia, said Capt. Supab Srisuk, an immigration policewoman.
“They wanted to return, fearing for their safety,” she said. “They said they would go back to work when the situation returns to normal.”
On Thursday, Chea Keo, the Cambodian general, said about 400 Thai soldiers and about 800 Cambodian troops were near the temple. Some 300 more Cambodian soldiers and 100 Thais were seen by The Associated Press arriving Friday, although commanders declined to confirm those numbers.
Associated Press writers Sutin Wannabovorn and Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, Thailand, and Ker Munthit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.