>Cambodia-Thai temple dispute talks start


ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand (AFP) — Senior Thai and Cambodian defence officials met Monday to try and end a six-day military standoff near a prized temple on the border, but there was little sign of a swift resolution.

As more than 500 Thai and 1,000 Cambodian troops faced off on disputed land near the ancient temple , Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh sat down with senior Thai military officials in an eastern Thai border town.

“We believe they will accept our reasonable offers which will ease tension along the border,” Thai Supreme Commander General Boonsrang Niumpradit (pictured) said before going into the meeting.

He did not expand on Thailand’s position, and officials refused to comment as closed-door talks continued into the afternoon in Aranyaprathet district, about 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of the disputed land.

Both countries have shown willingness to peacefully diffuse the territorial dispute, which saw weapons briefly drawn last week, and agreed at a regional meeting in Singapore late Sunday to “exert utmost efforts” to reach a deal.

Yet there appears to be little room for diplomatic manoeuvring, with letters exchanged between the country’s leaders showing no change in their stances, which have been hardened by political developments in both nations.

Tensions flared last week when three Thais tried to enter Cambodia’s Preah Vihear temple, and both sides have stationed troops around a small Buddhist pagoda on a mountain slope leading to the 11th century ruins.

In a letter obtained Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told his Thai counterpart Samak Sundaravej that a map used in a World Court ruling shows the temple “is legally located approximately seven hundred meters inside Cambodian territory.”

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia, but 4.6 square kilometres (1.8 square miles) of land surrounding the Khmer ruins remains in dispute.

Cambodia maintains that Thai troops are trespassing on their territory, and has sent a letter to the United Nations to try and draw attention to what it says is an illegal incursion.

Thailand insists the land around the temple is theirs.

Brigadier Chea Keo, commander of Cambodian forces in the disputed area, said that the deputy commander in chief of the Cambodian army had toured the area around Preah Vihear on Monday.

“Kun Kim just came to visit the troops and told the troops to be patient and keep the work for the government to solve,” he said.

On Sunday, Chea Keo said he had “very little hope” in the talks.

Recent tensions between the neighbours began with Cambodia’s moves to have Preah Vihear listed as a United Nations World Heritage Site.

UN cultural body UNESCO earlier this month finally granted heritage status to the temple perched on a cloud-covered jungle mountaintop, sparking an outcry from nationalist groups in Thailand who are battling Samak’s government.

The situation boiled over after three Thai protesters were arrested on Tuesday for jumping a fence to reach the temple. Troops headed to the border, and on Thursday witnesses said they had pointed their guns at each other.

Cambodia is preparing for general elections on July 27, and premier Hun Sen has portrayed the UN recognition of the ruins as a national triumph, organising huge public celebrations.

Thailand remains gripped by anti-government protests, with its cabinet threatened by impeachment proceedings. Thai foreign minister Noppadon Pattama was forced to resign over the furore surrounding the temple.

The territorial dispute has long dogged relations between the two countries.

Ties were last strained in 2003 when rioters burned and looted Thailand’s embassy and several Thai-owned businesses in Phnom Penh after a dispute over Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple.

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