Thursday, 17 July 2008

Cambodia-Thai Temple Military Standoff Enters Third Day

PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AFP)--Cambodian and Thai soldiers held their positions on the border near an ancient temple Thursday as a standoff over a territorial dispute entered its third day.

More than 400 Thai troops and more than 800 Cambodian soldiers stood stationed around a small Buddhist pagoda on the slope of a mountain leading to the ruins of the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple.

Brig. Chea Keo, commander in chief of the army at Preah Vihear, warned reporters that the situation could worsen if the Thais continued to swell their ranks.

"If the Thais keep adding more troops, the situation will escalate, but we try to be patient," Keo said.

"They want us to do something first, but we try to remain calm," he added.

Groups of Cambodian soldiers based at the foot of the mountain were redeployed to the temple at the top, armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers.

Thai soldiers were all stationed inside the pagoda compound, around the wooden structure that has a corrugated metal roof.

The brigadier acknowledged that the Thai army had superior weapons but said that the Cambodians were in a better position at the top of the mountain.

Cambodian officials claim soldiers began crossing the border Tuesday after three Thai protesters were arrested for jumping an immigration checkpoint to reach the temple.

Thailand denies the trespass and insists the soldiers were patrolling its side of the border but Cambodian troops on the scene say the Thai soldiers have crossed more than 100 meters outside their territory.

An area of 4.6 square kilometers on the border remains in dispute between the two countries after the World Court in 1962 determined the Preah Vihear ruins belong to Cambodia, but its most accessible entrance lies in Thailand.

A Thai soldier was injured by a landmine in the area Tuesday but the Thai military says the landmine was planted on Thai soil, possibly a remnant from the decades of war that once plagued the border.

About 70% of Cambodians who live in the area have left their homes during the confrontation, Keo said.

The incident comes amid heightened political tensions in both countries after the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO awarded the temple World Heritage status earlier this month.

Cambodia is preparing for general elections July 27, when Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to extend his decades-long grip on power.

He has portrayed the U.N. recognition of the ruins as a national triumph, organizing huge public celebrations.

In Thailand, critics of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej - already the target of street protests - have stoked the temple controversy to fire up nationalist sentiment.

Samak's government had originally signed a deal supporting Cambodia's bid to make the ruins a World Heritage site, but a court overturned the pact, forcing the resignation of foreign minister Noppadon Pattama.

The parliamentary opposition is now mulling impeachment motions against the entire cabinet.

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