Saturday, 19 July 2008

Cambodia and Thailand continue troop buildup despite pledge to hold talks

The Associated Press
Published: July 19, 2008

PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia: Cambodia and Thailand continued to reinforce their troops along a disputed border area near an 11th century temple Saturday, even as they prepared for talks to avert a military confrontation.

Some 300 more Cambodian soldiers and 100 Thais were seen by Associated Press reporters arriving near the Preah Vihear temple late Friday, although commanders declined to confirm those numbers.

Earlier, Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said Cambodia had about 800 troops as against 400 Thai soldiers in the area as the standoff entered a fifth day.

The countries are to meet Monday in an attempt to defuse the conflict over territory surrounding the ancient temple, which escalated when UNESCO recently approved Cambodia's application to have the complex named a World Heritage Site. Thai activists fear the new status will undermine Thailand's claim to nearby land since the border has never been demarcated.

Chea Keo said troops from the opposing forces were on the brink of a shoot-out Thursday night when Cambodian monks gathered to celebrate Buddhist lent at a pagoda about 220 yards (200 meters) from the ancient temple.

The incident occurred when Thai troops tried to evict about 50 Cambodian soldiers from the compound of the Buddhist pagoda, where they sought to camp for the night to provide security for the monks. The two sides raised their rifles at each other, but the standoff ended with the Cambodians eventually pulling back, Chea Keo said Friday.

A Thai army spokeswoman said she was not aware of any brinksmanship taking place.

Thai soldiers entered the Preah Vihear area Tuesday, staking out positions at a Buddhist temple compound. However, some resident Cambodian monks remained and Cambodian soldiers have continued to visit them.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen wrote a letter to Samak on Thursday saying relations had been "worsening" since Thai troops "encroached on our territory," and asked Samak to pull them back.

Responding to his Cambodian counterpart, Samak said the area around the pagoda referred to in the letter "is within the Thai territory," according to a statement Saturday from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

While urging both sides to exercise restraint, Samak's letter said that the settlement of Cambodians in that area constitutes "a continued violation of Thailand's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

In an effort to contain the tension, the Cambodian Interior Ministry instructed authorities in border provinces to maintain "good working relations" and avoid "confrontation or violence."

The dispute has taken a toll on tourism in the area, with the Thai side closed to visitors and the U.S. Embassy recommending Friday that American citizens "defer travel to this area until the situation has been resolved."

It also is starting to hurt economic relations between the two neighbors. On Friday, about 200 Thai construction workers returned home from Cambodia, said Capt. Supab Srisuk, an immigration policewoman.

"They wanted to return, fearing for their safety," she said. "They said they would go back to work when the situation returns to normal."

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