REUTERS/Nopporn Wong-Anan (THAILAND)
By SOPHENG CHEANG,
Associated Press Writer
PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia – A Cambodian general said Sunday that he has little hope that upcoming talks between his government and will resolve a tense border dispute that has seen hundreds of troops face off around an ancient temple.
Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said Thai troops have deployed an artillery piece about half a mile northeast of Preah Vihear temple — the latest escalation ahead of Monday’s meeting aimed at averting a military confrontation.
“Regarding the talks tomorrow, we have little hope about the outcome,” Chea Keo said.
He said the reason for his pessimism stems from a recent counterclaim by Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej that the area around a Buddhist pagoda near the historic temple belongs to Thailand. Thai troops have been stationed at the pagoda since Tuesday.
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 him to pull them back.
Responding to his Cambodian counterpart, Samak said the area around the pagoda referred to in the letter “is within the Thai territory,” according to a statement Saturday from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While urging both sides to exercise restraint, Samak’s letter said the settlement of Cambodians in that area constitutes “a continued violation of Thailand’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Despite their pledge to hold talks Monday in Thailand to try to defuse the tensions, bothand Thailand have massed troops at the site.
“We continue to be on alert at all time. And at the same time, we keep instructing our soldiers to be patient and avoid being blamed for starting a war,” Chea Keo said Sunday.
The conflict over territory surrounding Preah Vihear temple escalated when UNESCO recently approved Cambodia’s application to have the complex named a World Heritage Site. Thai activists fear the new status will undermine Thailand’s claim to nearby land since the border has never been demarcated.
Troops from the opposing forces were on the brink of a shoot-out Thursday night, which was avoided when Cambodians retreated from a site occupied by the Thais.
But opposing commanders and their troops have otherwise tried to defuse tensions, sometimes even sharing meals, snapping photographs and sleeping within easy sight of one another.
The dispute has taken a toll on tourism in the area, with the Thai side closed to visitors. It also is starting to hurt economic relations between the two neighbors.
Associated Press writers Ambika Ahuja in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report., and Ker Munthit in