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Cambodia, Thailand continue troop buildup at border ខែកក្កដា 18, 2008

Posted by សុភ័ក្ត្រ in News.
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PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia and Thailand stepped up their troop presence Thursday in the third day of a standoff in disputed border territory despite agreeing to hold talks next week to avoid military action.

Officials from both countries have said they are committed to avoiding a conflict after tensions escalated Tuesday when Cambodia accused Thailand of crossing into its territory. But they have continued to mass troops on the border, and Cambodia toughened its rhetoric Thursday, saying it was ready for all “eventualities.”

Thailand raised the possibility its citizens might need to be evacuated.

The confrontation is the latest escalation of a long-standing dispute over overlapping claims to territory surrounding a historic temple near the countries’ border, which has never been fully demarcated.

The conflict came to a head last week when UNESCO approved Cambodia’s application for World Heritage Site status for Preah Vihear temple with the endorsement of Thailand’s government.

Thai anti-government protesters, who have staged daily demonstrations for nearly two months in Bangkok, have seized on the issue, accusing the government of giving away Thai land in exchange for business contracts for the cronies of toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The protesters say Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is a proxy of Thaksin.

Tuesday’s troop movements followed the brief detention by Cambodia of three Thai protesters who crossed the border to visit the temple Tuesday. Cambodia sealed off access from Thailand to the temple earlier this month.

Thailand currently has more than 400 troops stationed near the temple, up from about 200 the day before, Cambodian Brig. Gen. Chea Keo said. Cambodia has about 800 troops, up from 380 on Wednesday.

A senior Thai military official acknowledged Wednesday that the troops are on “disputed” ground, despite official statements that they are on Thai territory. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the situation.

In a letter to his Thai counterpart seen by The Associated Press, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urged Thailand to withdraw its troops from the border area.

Thailand’s Air Chief Marshal Chalit Phukbhasuk said the air force was prepared to fly Thai nationals out of Cambodia if the dispute worsened.

Despite the potential for a flare-up and the official rhetoric, both sides said they would not use force unless attacked, and the atmosphere around the temple was generally relaxed.

Cambodian soldiers snapped photographs of their opponents just yards (meters) away and some tourists, including an American woman, visited the spectacular site.

On the Thai side of the border, however, a group of protesters clashed with villagers some 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the temple in Sisaket Province, and about 10 people were injured, said Sisaket Governor Seni Jitkasem.

“It was a chaotic scene. People were beating one another with flag poles and kicking and punching,” Seni said. “But the situation is now under control.”

Earlier, hundreds of villagers blocked the anti-government protesters from marching to Preah Vihear, some shouting for them to “go home” and stop fomenting trouble amid fear that protests near the site may provoke a military action. Police stood by a barricade blocking the road to the temple.

“We are Thais. We should be able to talk about this” to settle any differences, villager Ubondej Panthep said. “We don’t want to provoke anyone to start shooting.”

One protest leader, Pramoj Hoimook, said Cambodians have settled on Thai soil “and we want to correct that.”

Samak condemned the Thai protesters for “trying to ignite a conflict.”

“Now the troops on both sides are confronting each other. What madness is this? There are people who want to provoke this,” Samak told reporters, referring to anti-government protesters who have seized on the issue in attempts to bring down his government.

The two countries’ defense ministers are to meet next Monday to ease tensions.

Most of the 900 Cambodian villagers living nearby fled their homes when the confrontation began Tuesday. However, some Cambodian and foreign tourists risked possible harm Thursday by visiting the temple. One of them was Liz Shura from New York City.

“It’s a little frightening for me, but I don’t think I am actually in danger,” Shura told an Associated Press reporter, discounting the possibility of violence.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice awarded Preah Vihear and the land it occupies to Cambodia, a decision that still rankles many Thais even though the temple is culturally Cambodian, sharing the Hindu-influenced style of the more famous Angkor complex.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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