PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Thai troops retreated from a disputed border zone Tuesday, a Cambodian general said, averting a possible military clash after Cambodia’s prime minister issued an ultimatum to Thailand to withdraw by midday.
But a Thai army spokesman denied that any soldiers had been withdrawn, and said his country was “ready” to respond militarily if attacked.
Cambodian army commander Brig. Gen. Yim Pim said all Thai troops had retreated and were back inside their camp about half a mile (1 kilometer) from the contested territory.
“The tense situation has now eased,” Yim Pim told The Associated Press.
Earlier Tuesday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had warned Thailand to pull back 84 troops from the area by noon. He accused the troops of having crossed into Cambodian territory in a disputed stretch of jungle near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, which has been a source of enmity between the two countries for decades.
“They must withdraw,” Hun Sen said during a speech at an economic conference in the capital, Phnom Penh. “I have set the timeline for them to withdraw by 12 o’clock.” Noon in Cambodia is 0500 GMT.
“At any cost, we will not allow Thai troops to invade this area. I would like to be clear about this,” Hun Sen said, adding that he had ordered Cambodia’s army chiefs to “take full responsibility over this area. It is a life-and-death battle zone.”
Yim Pim, the Cambodian army general, said the troops had fully retreated about 90 minutes ahead of the noon deadline.
Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd denied the Cambodian claim that Thai troops had withdrawn from the disputed area.
“There has been no troop movement,” Sansern said in a telephone interview. “The army wants the two countries to continue with bilateral talks, but if the situation escalates, we are ready. But we will not attack first.”
Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornwiwait said about 80 troops went into the disputed territory on a mine removal mission after two Thai soldiers lost legs earlier this month when they stepped on land mines.
Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat earlier told reporters that Thailand was “surprised” Hun Sen had issued an ultimatum “threatening the use of force.”
“If Cambodia does resort to the use of force … Thailand will have to exercise its right to self-defense,” Tharit said in the statement, indicating that deep tensions remained between the two neighbors.
Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, also speaking earlier in the day, said he had ordered the army to “take care of the situation so there is no violence.”
“We do not object to redeployment so there is no confrontation,” Somchai told reporters as he headed into Tuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting.
Both countries have long claimed Preah Vihear, but the World Court awarded it to Cambodia in 1962. Sovereignty over some of the land around the temple, however, has not been clearly resolved.
Tensions flared July 15 after UNESCO, the U.N. agency, approved Cambodia’s bid to have the Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site. Cambodia deployed about 800 troops to the border, and Thailand sent some 400 soldiers.
Both sides pulled back most of their troops in late August, but it is not clear how many remain in the area and at other spots along the disputed border.
A brief gunfight broke out between the two sides early this month, with one Cambodian and two Thai soldiers wounded. Both sides claimed the other fired first and blamed each other for being on the wrong side of the border. Three days later, two Thai soldiers lost legs when they stepped on land mines in the area.
Hun Sen met Monday with Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornwiwat, but the meeting appeared to end without a resolution, with Hun Sen saying that if Thai troops do not stop trespassing, “armed clashes will break out.”