PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Thailand vowed it was ready to respond militarily if attacked by Cambodia after its smaller neighbor issued an ultimatum for Thai troops to pull back from disputed border territory by midday Tuesday.
Thailand moved more troops to an area nearby late Tuesday, but strictly as a defensive measure, said a senior Thai army officer.
The troops on both sides remained only about 100 yards apart, said Gen. Viboonsak Neepan, the Thai Army commander for the region.
“We have sent more troops to be stationed near the area but only enough to resist (an attack). We will not attack first,” Viboonsak said. He did not specify how many troops were sent.
Despite increasingly heated rhetoric — including a description by Cambodia’s prime minister of the contested land as “a life-and-death battle zone” — fighting did not break out, although the two countries disagreed on who backed down.
Thailand’s prime minister said his country’s troops had been on their own territory all along.
“If there is a problem, we will use peaceful means with an emphasis on negotiations,” said Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat. “We will not be an invader.” Somchai is also under intense political pressure at home from anti-government militants seeking his resignation.
The dispute is over the land around Preah Vihear, an 11th century temple long claimed by both countries but awarded to Cambodia by the World Court in 1962. Sovereignty over some of the land around the temple has not been clearly resolved.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Tuesday morning that Thai troops had tried a day earlier to advance into Cambodia’s territory but Cambodian soldiers “waved them back and said, ‘If you want to die, keep coming.'”
“They must withdraw,” Hun Sen said in a speech in the capital, Phnom Penh. “I have set the timeline for them to withdraw by 12 o’clock.”
Cambodian army commander Brig. Gen. Yim Pim later said all Thai troops had retreated about 90 minutes ahead of the deadline and were back inside their camp about half a mile from the contested territory.
“The tense situation has now eased,” Yim Pim told The Associated Press.