Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Thai-Cambodia border quiet as UN eyes temple visit

By Agence France-Presse
Updated: 2/8/2011

via CAAI

Cambodian and Thai troops held fire on their tense border Tuesday as the world heritage body UNESCO prepared a mission to inspect an ancient temple reportedly damaged in the deadly standoff.

Despite a lull in fighting since early Monday, a Cambodian military commander stationed near the temple said the situation remained "tense", as the death toll from four days of violence rose to eight.

"We are still on alert," said the commander, who did not wish to be named.

The latest fatality was a Thai soldier who died on Tuesday from injuries suffered during artillery shelling over the weekend.

The clashes, which first erupted on Friday, have now left five Cambodians and three Thais dead, including at least one civilian on each side.

Phnom Penh says that Thai artillery fire has damaged the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, which is at the centre of the standoff.

UNESCO head Irina Bokova announced plans for a mission to the area "as soon as possible" to assess the state of the structure.

"World Heritage sites are the heritage of all humanity and the international community has a special responsibility to safeguard them," said a statement from the Paris-based UN cultural body.

Ties between the neighbours have been strained since Preah Vihear was granted UN World Heritage status in July 2008.

The World Court ruled in 1962 that the structure itself belonged to Cambodia but both countries claim ownership of a 4.6-square-kilometre (1.8-square-mile) surrounding area.

An AFP photographer on the scene said the temple grounds were littered with shrapnel and some temple walls appeared scarred by bullet marks.

He also described seeing what looked like blood stains on one of the stone pathways inside the temple complex, and blackened trees dotting the surrounding landscape.

The two sides blame each other for starting that violence that has displaced thousands of families on both sides of the frontier.

Cambodia on Tuesday handed over to the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh a Thai soldier captured in fighting on February 5.

Both Thailand and Cambodia have written to the UN Security Council twice about the border unrest, with Bangkok accusing Phnom Penh of seeking the "internationalisation" of the conflict.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned that regional stability was at risk from what he described as "Thailand's aggression".

Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, the Brazilian ambassador who is the current president of the UN Security Council, said its members would be willing to meet to discuss the dispute.

The United States again called on both sides "to exercise maximum restraint", in comments echoed by the European Union, Malaysia and Vietnam.

US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters that Washington was "undecided" on whether the UN should be involved after Cambodia called for urgent action by the Security Council.

Hun Sen has asked for UN troops to be sent to the area to create a "buffer zone".

He also said he would welcome intervention by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Marty Natalegawa, foreign minister of Indonesia -- the current ASEAN chair -- has held talks with his counterparts in Phnom Penh and Bangkok to discuss the border dispute.

Natalegawa told reporters in the Thai capital he was hopeful the current halt in fighting would hold with the two sides seemingly "committed to ensure that the situation stabilises."

It is unclear exactly what triggered the latest bout of violence, but diplomatic frictions have grown since late December when seven Thais, including one lawmaker, were arrested by Cambodia near the border for illegal entry.

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