>Pessimism as Cambodia-Thai border talks start

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Cambodian soldiers look on as Buddhist monks walk towards a pagoda near the Thai border

ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand (AFP) — Senior defence officials from Thailand and Cambodia met Monday to try and end a week-long military standoff on their border, but there was little hope for a swift resolution.

As more than 500 Thai and 1,000 Cambodian troops faced off in disputed land near a prized Hindu 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 said before going into the meeting. He did not expand on Thailand’s position.

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 the ancient temple , and both sides have stationed troops around a small Buddhist pagoda on the slope of a mountain leading to Preah Vihear.

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 awarding Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia shows the pagoda “is legally located approximately seven hundred meters inside Cambodian territory.”

Hun Sen said his letter was a response to a Friday letter by Samak that said the addition of Cambodian troops had caused the situation to “deteriorate.”

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the 11th century Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia, but 4.6 square kilometres (1.8 square miles) of land surrounding the Khmer ruins remains in dispute.

Brigadier Chea Keo, commander of the Cambodian forces in the disputed area, said Sunday he had little faith in the talks because Thailand insisted that the land near the temple was theirs.

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.

“We have very little hope about the negotiations,” Chea Keo said.

The talks are taking place in Aranyaprathet district about 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of the disputed land.

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 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 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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