>Thailand, Cambodia begin peace talks

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Sunrise looks over Cambodia’s Preah Vihear temple near the Cambodian-Thai border in Preah Vihear, Cambodia Monday, July 21, 2008. The two nations will begin talks Monday aimed at resolving a lingering dispute over territory near a World Heritage Site temple, where more than 4,000 troops from the two sides have been deployed. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand (AP) — Cambodian and Thai military leaders began talks Monday aimed at resolving a lingering dispute over territory near a World Heritage Site temple, where more than 4,000 troops from the two sides have been deployed.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed confidence that the meeting in this border town would produce “interim measures” to defuse tensions.

“I have full confidence that our joint efforts will result in a mutually satisfactory solution to (the) current problem,” Hun Sen said in a letter to Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. The letter, dated Saturday, was seen Monday by The Associated Press.

Thailand’s Supreme Commander Boonsrang Niempradit and Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh are attending the bilateral talks.

In Singapore, the two countries pledged a peaceful resolution to the standoff as 10 foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathered for their annual security meeting.

“We urged both sides to exercise utmost restraint and resolve this issue amicably,” Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo told reporters late Sunday. “Both sides affirmed that they would … exert their utmost efforts to find a peaceful solution to the issue.”

The conflict over territory surrounding the ancient Preah Vihear Hindu temple escalated earlier this month when UNESCO approved Cambodia’s application to have the complex named a World Heritage Site. Thai activists say the new status undermines Thailand’s claim to 1.8 square miles around the temple.

Cambodia’s mission at the United Nations has also complained to the Security Council and the General Assembly to “draw their attention to the current situation on the Cambodian-Thai border,” Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Sunday.

He said his government is not seeking U.N. intervention and committed to pursuing peaceful solution to the problem with Thailand.

Based on estimates by commanders and AP reporters on both sides of the border, more than 4,000 troops have been deployed around the temple and in the immediate border region since last Tuesday.

In his letter Friday to the Security Council, Cambodian U.N. Ambassador Sea Kosal said the action by Thai troops was aimed at creating “a de facto overlapping area that legally does not exist on Cambodian soil.”

The atmosphere appeared relaxed, despite the close proximity of the two forces at the site.

Opposing commanders and their troops have tried to defuse tensions, sometimes even sharing meals, snapping photographs and sleeping within easy sight of each other.

“Some of these soldiers (the Cambodians and the Thais) have known one another a long time and they have good relationships. The soldiers on both sides understand each other,” Thai field commander Col. Chayan Huaysoongnern told reporters.

Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said Thai troops have deployed artillery about half a mile northeast of Preah Vihear temple.

While urging both sides to exercise restraint, Samak wrote in a letter to Hun Sen that a settlement of Cambodians in the area constituted “a continued violation of Thailand’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In his reply, Hun Sen argued that the compound of the Buddhist pagoda is located about 766 yards inside Cambodian territory. He referred to a map used by the International Court of Justice in its 1962 judgment that handed ownership of Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia.

The standoff entered its seventh day as Cambodia prepared to hold national elections July 27.

Phanithan Wattanayakorn, a professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said a solution to the tensions may only emerge after the polls.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen will use the issue of Preah Vihear for political gain so the meeting is symbolic to show that both countries are serious about national interest and national pride,” Phanithan said.

Khieu Kanharith dismissed such suggestions, saying the problem was caused by Thailand and that the timing was irrelevant to the elections.

He said Cambodia wanted to have Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site at the UNESCO meeting in New Zealand last year, but “because of the Thai objection then, we are where we are now.”

He said the “good deeds” of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party — and not the Preah Vihear issue — would the determine election’s outcome. He said the balloting will be held Sunday as planned, despite the tensions.

Associated Press writers Ambika Ahuja and Sutin Wannabovorn in Bangkok, Thailand, Ker Munthit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Vijay Joshi in Singapore contributed to this report.

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