Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters on Monday he had warned visiting Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornviwat that without a quick pullout, Thai troops could face enemy fire, in a further escalation of long simmering tensions.
“If they cannot withdraw tonight, tomorrow they must withdraw,” Hun Sen said.
“We try to be patient, but I told the Thai foreign minister today that the area is a life-and-death battle zone,” he added.
His comments came after talks with Sompong in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. Sompong also met with his counterpart Hor Namhong in a bid to resolve the dispute over the area near the ancient Preah Vihear temple.
Hor Namhong told reporters that while he was meeting with Sompong, he had received word that 80 Thai soldiers had attempted to cross the border near the Khmer temple into Cambodia.
“I told my Thai counterpart that sending a lot of troops along the border is dangerous and can provoke a large-scale armed conflict,” he told reporters, adding: “Even one shot can lead to a large-scale armed conflict.”
The Cambodian foreign minister said Monday’s talks failed to end in agreement because his Thai opposite number “could not sign on anything”.
Major General Srey Deok, who oversees the Cambodian military in the disputed area, told AFP: “Thai troops have already entered the area. They are confronting our troops.”
But Thai border commander Major General Kanok Netrakavaesana said his troops were merely on patrol, noting: “The Thai army has a responsibility to take care of the area… We stay where we stay.”
Tensions between the neighbours first flared in July after the temple was awarded world heritage status by the United Nations cultural body UNESCO, angering nationalists in Thailand who still claim ownership of the site.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the temple belongs to Cambodia, but 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.
Both sides agreed to pull back in mid-August, leaving just a few dozen soldiers stationed near the temple. But talks on the eventual withdrawal of troops were postponed later that month amid political upheaval in Thailand.
At least one Cambodian soldier and two Thai troops were wounded when units exchanged gunfire during a brief clash on October 3 near the temple.
Hun Sen and Hor Namhong both told reporters that Cambodia could opt to take the border dispute before an international court if the neighbours cannot resolve the dispute soon.
Much of the Cambodian-Thai border remains in dispute, and the slow pace of mine clearance has delayed demarcation.
© 2008 AFP