PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian officials said Friday that their troops are ready to pull back from the frontier with Thailand under an agreement to ease a month of military tension on disputed territory near an ancient border temple.
The standoff erupted near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple on July 15 after UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency, approved Cambodia’s application to have the complex named a World Heritage Site. Both countries have long held claim to the temple, but the World Court awarded it to Cambodia in 1962.
About 800 troops from Cambodia and 400 from Thailand have been facing off in the area for a month.
“We are waiting for an order to follow, but both sides must act together,” Col. Meas Yoeurn, a deputy commander of Cambodian troops in the area, said by phone Friday. “If Thai troops begin pulling back, we will also begin pulling back.”
Other Cambodian officials in the area said the two countries’ troop pullback will begin Saturday.
But the event will take place mostly under a media blackout, targeting especially photo and television journalists, who will not be allowed near the site, said Min Sovann, a police official.
At the request of Thai officials, Cambodian authorities will also close the road to Cambodian travelers up the mountain, where the temple is located, said Hang Soth, director-general of the Preah Vihear National Authority, a government agency managing the historic site.
He declined to elaborate but only said “we just do not want to see any problems” that would interrupt the process of the pullback.
The attempt to minimize publicity appeared to be a face-saving gesture after weeks of overheated nationalist rhetoric on both sides.
On Thursday, Cambodian Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Neang Phat said the two countries have agreed to a gradual redeployment of troops from the area ahead of talks between their foreign ministers on territorial disputes next Monday in Thailand.
He said the redeployment, slated to begin during the weekend, will first apply to Thai and Cambodian troops stationed inside the compound of the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara Buddhist pagoda near the temple.
He said Thai and Cambodian military officials, during a meeting in Thailand’s Surin province Wednesday, agreed to reduce the number of their troops “to the lowest number possible.”
A similar step will be applied on troops stationed in areas surrounding the pagoda and Preah Vihear temple after the foreign ministers’ meeting, he said.
“We hope Thailand will honor its commitment” to the agreement, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Friday.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had backed Cambodia’s World Heritage site bid, sparking demonstrations by anti-government protesters who claimed the temple’s new status would undermine Thailand’s claim to the surrounding area.
The protests left Samak politically vulnerable, and he had to take action to appease his nationalist critics. On July 15, Thailand sent troops to occupy the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda — claimed by Cambodia and near Preah Vihear.
Cambodia responded with its own troop deployment. The two sides came close to a shoot-out on July 17 when Cambodian monks sought to celebrate Buddhist lent in the pagoda.
Troops on both sides raised their weapons, but no shots were fired, and the Cambodians eventually backed down.
The border dispute has not been resolved despite two rounds of talks since last month, with the countries referring to two different maps.
Cambodia uses a French colonial map demarcating the border, which Thailand says favors Cambodia. Thailand relies on a map drawn up later with American technical assistance.