REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea (CAMBODIA)
THANIDA TANSUBHAPOL, WASSANA NANUAM AND AGENCIES
Cambodia yesterday told Thailand to immediately withdraw troops from the disputed border area near the Preah Vihear temple or risk a “large-scale armed conflict”.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters in Phnom Penh that he had warned Thailand’s visiting Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat that without a quick pullout, Thai soldiers could face being fired upon by Cambodian troops, in a further escalation of long-simmering tensions.
“If they cannot withdraw tonight, they must withdraw tomorrow,” said Hun Sen.
“We have tried to be patient, but I told the Thai foreign minister today that the area is a life-and-death battle zone.”
His comments came after talks with Mr Sompong in Phnom Penh.
Mr Sompong also met with his counterpart Hor Namhong in a bid to resolve the dispute over the area near the ancient Preah Vihear temple.
The Cambodian foreign minister said yesterday’s talks failed to end in agreement because his Thai opposite number “could not sign anything”.
Hun Sen and Hor Namhong both told reporters that Cambodia could choose to take the border dispute before an international court if it was not resolved soon.
The comments made by the Cambodian prime minister and foreign minister surprised Mr Sompong and Thai officials, who were adamant that the meetings had not been a failure.
Mr Sompong said the tone during the meetings between the two countries had been different as the Cambodian leaders agreed that both sides had to be patient in resolving the border spat.
He said no Thai troop withdrawals would be made from the 4.6 sq km overlapping area between Kantharalak district in Si Sa Ket and Preah Vihear province of Cambodia until the dispute over ownership is cleared through negotiations in the Joint Boundary Commission that was set up to demarcate the land border.
Thailand reiterated its ownership over the area, Mr Sompong said in Bangkok and rushed to report the talks to Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.
Suranaree Task Force commander Maj-Gen Kanok Netrakavaesana will hold talks with his Cambodian counterpart tomorrow on the border issues and the Thai and Cambodian defence ministers will meet next Tuesday , according to Mr Sompong.
Cambodian Deputy Defence Minister Gen Neang Phat said more Cambodian troops were heading to the area after up to 500 Thai soldiers had tried to cross the border near an ancient Hindu temple that is claimed by both countries.
“We are building up our troops at the border in response to Thailand, but I cannot reveal the number,” he told reporters.
Maj-Gen Srey Deok, who oversees the Cambodian military in the disputed area, said: “Thai troops have already entered the area. They are confronting our troops.”
But Maj-Gen Kanok denied that more troops had been sent to the disputed area near the Preah Vihear temple.
Thailand and Cambodia have 10 soldiers each at the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda near the Preah Vihear temple and 45 around the compound on joint patrol, according to the agreement between the two countries to ease border tension.
The two countries also have back-up troops near the border.
The number of soldiers there remained unchanged, Maj-Gen Kanok said.
Maj-Gen Kanok slammed Cambodia for distorting information and taking advantage of the political crisis in Thailand to launch an offensive move for its own political benefit.
The Suranaree chief, his patience wearing thin, called for a quick solution to the border spat and a clear direction to be provided by the government as it could become an armed conflict if it was left unsettled.
“I want the government to solve this problem and make it clear what to do. If it is left this way, nobody knows what is going to happen,” he said.
Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia first flared in July after the Preah Vihear temple was awarded World Heritage status by the World Heritage Committee.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the temple belongs to Cambodia, but the surrounding land remains in dispute.
Tensions escalated into a military confrontation in which up to 1,000 Cambodian and Thai troops faced off for six weeks.
The two countries have swapped accusations of violating each other’s territory in the dispute.