16 Oct 2008

Thai, Cambodian armies meet after border battle

9:09 pm on 16 October 2008

Thai and Cambodian army commanders held talks across their disputed border on Thursday after the most serious clash in years killed two Cambodian soldiers and left 10 Thais in Cambodian hands.

Hundreds of Cambodian civilians fled the border area after Wednesday's 40-minute exchange of rocket and gunfire, as both sides rushed armour and troops to the conflict zone.

The International Court of Justice awarded the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia in 1962, a ruling that has rankled Thais ever since.

However, it failed to determine the ownership of 4.6 square kilometres of scrub next to the stunning but remote Hindu ruins, which have been off-limits to tourists for months.

The temple has stirred nationalist passions in both countries for generations, but an escalation of conflict did not appear inevitable as officials avoided belligerent rhetoric.

"Our policy to resolve this conflict is through negotiations," Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said in Bangkok as the talks got under way near the temple.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said nothing since the clash, in which two Cambodians and five Thais were wounded. His foreign minister said it was "not an invasion by Thailand".

Touchy about territory

After eight centuries of decline, from the mighty Khmer empire that built Angkor Wat and dominated the region to a small, war-scarred nation sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodians are very touchy about their territory.

The country's precise area - 181,035 square km - is drummed into every schoolchild, and any perceived squeezing of its borders is taken as a personal affront by many of its 13 million people.

"We need to defend our land. We must not lose to the Thais," said security guard Bun Roeun, 36. "If the Thais continue their attempt to cross our border, I am ready to join the army to fight back."

"You have to defend your house," said 48-year-old motorbike taxi driver Chea Sokean. "If the Thai troops want to steal our house, we have to chase them away."

There has been no word on the exchange of 10 Thai prisoners at the Preah Vihear temple, whose existence Bangkok continues to deny.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said the group, who were photographed by a Reuters journalist under Cambodian guard, would be treated properly and returned to Thailand if Bangkok requested.

Bangkok has urged its citizens to leave Cambodia, mindful of the 2003 torching of its embassy and Thai businesses in Phnom Penh by a nationalist mob incensed by a row over Angkor Wat, another ancient temple.