PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA: Thailand put jet fighters on standby and Cambodia said its troops were on alert Wednesday as war rhetoric heated up between the neighbors in a tense border dispute.
Both sides said they had sent additional troops to the border and were ready to respond militarily if attacked, a day after Cambodia issued an ultimatum to Thailand to pull back its soldiers from disputed territory near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple.
“Our forces are on alert and ready to support the army’s possible operations on the border,” said Thai air force official Group Capt. Montol Satchukorn. “These are just precautionary measures. It’s not that we are going to war.”
The precautions included putting jet fighters on alert at air force bases nationwide and C-130 transport planes on standby at a base in the capital, Bangkok, to evacuate Thais living in the border area “if the tension escalates to a military confrontation,” Montol told The Associated Press in Bangkok, Thailand.
Cambodia’s deputy defense minister, Gen. Neang Phat, said, “We remain on alert and have readied our forces adequately to protect our territory.” He declined to say how many Cambodian troops had been deployed in the area.
The conflict is the latest flare-up in a decades-long dispute over a contested stretch of jungle near the Preah Vihear temple. The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over some surrounding land has never been clearly resolved.
Tensions flared 15 July after UNESCO, the U.N. agency, approved Cambodia’s bid to have the Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site, leading some in Thailand to fear that its claims over the nearby land would be undermined.
Cambodia deployed about 800 troops to the border after the UNESCO decision, and Thailand sent some 400 soldiers. Both sides pulled back most of their troops in late August, but passions flared again recently.
A brief gunfight broke out between the sides earlier 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.
As of late Tuesday (14 Oct), the opposing troops were only about 100 yards (meters) 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.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sparked concerns Tuesday that an armed conflict was imminent, accusing Thai troops of having advanced into Cambodia’s territory and declaring it a “life-and-death battle zone.”
“They must withdraw,” Hun Sen said in the capital, Phnom Penh. “I have set the timeline for them to withdraw by 12 o’clock.”
There was no fighting despite the heated rhetoric, although the two countries disagreed on who backed down.
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 (0.80 kilometers) from the contested territory.
However, Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd denied that any troops had been pulled back and the Foreign Ministry issued a toughly worded statement that said, “If Cambodia resorts to the use of force, Thailand will have no choice but to exercise its right to self-defense.”
Thailand’s prime minister and military officials said their 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 protesters seeking his resignation.
(By KER MUNTHIT/ AP)
Associated Press Writer Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok, Thailand contributed to this report.