Sunday, 21 June 2009

Thai PM hits back in Cambodia border temple row

Cambodian soldiers stand guard near the controversial Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodia-Thai border

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has refused to back down over a debate involving the ancient Preah Vihear temple

BANGKOK (AFP) — Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has refused to back down after reopening a debate over an ancient temple on the disputed border with Cambodia which has provoked bloody clashes.

Bangkok this week asked world heritage body UNESCO to reconsider its decision to formally list the 11th century Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia, as ownership of land surrounding the ruins is still in dispute.

Cambodia on Saturday rebuked Thailand for raising the matter, saying that its soldiers would defend their land again if necessary following outbreaks of violence in the past year which have left seven dead.

But Abhisit -- who made a one-day visit to Cambodia last week in an attempt to push forward border talks -- said the UNESCO move itself was to blame for the tensions.

"We are concerned that the moves by UNESCO may speed up conflicts, tensions or a border clash," the Oxford-educated Abhisit said on his weekend television programme.

He said Thai deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban would soon travel to Cambodia to explain Thailand's position, but said that Bangkok still believed all border issues should be solved by peaceful measures.

Cambodia and Thailand have been at loggerheads over the land around the Preah Vihear temple for decades, but tensions spilled over into violence last July when the temple was granted UN World Heritage status.

Although the World Court ruled in 1962 that it belonged to Cambodia, the most accessible entrance to the ancient Khmer temple with its crumbling stone staircases and elegant carvings is in northeastern Thailand.

Soldiers from Cambodia and Thailand continue to patrol the area, with the last gunbattle in the temple area in April leaving three people dead.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said in Phnom Penh on Saturday that his country "welcomes Thailand militarily, diplomatically, internationally or through peaceful negotiations."

"(But) it (border fighting) has happened twice... (so) if they want to send their troops to Cambodia a third time, we will welcome them too," he said.

The border between the two countries has never been fully demarcated, in part because it is littered with landmines left over from decades of war in Cambodia.

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