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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Thai and Cambodia temple dispute spills over into deadly fighting

Five Thai soldiers were killed and two khmer soldiers also killed. Thai soldiers fired first at Veal Antreay deep in Cambodia territory.

Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged rockets and gunfire across their border today in a deadly battle over a small and remote plot of jungle adjoining an ancient Hindu temple.

At least two Cambodian soldiers were reported to have been killed and five Thais and two Cambodians were injured in the afternoon battle at the mountain-top Preah Vihear temple, a 1,100-year old World Heritage Site and tourist attraction.

Thailand’s foreign minister urged his countrymen to flee Cambodia for fear of reprisals after an incident which will further enrage nationalists in both countries and makes a diplomatic solution to the border dispute more difficult than ever.

Each side accused the other of opening fire first, and gave a different account of the duration of the battle, which began in the middle of the afternoon. Journalists on the Cambodian side of the border reported seeing rocket-propelled grenades fired by the Thais. At least ten Thai soldiers stationed in a pagoda surrendered to the Cambodians.

“We are not the ones who ignited the violence,” the Thai prime minister Somchai Wongsawat said in the Thai capital, Bangkok. “The situation has returned to normal now . . . It is not serious and I am convinced there will be resolution.”

But there was no immediate sign of dialogue between the two sides. In Phnom Penh, the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, held an emergency meeting with ministers and generals, the day after threatening a “life-and-death battle” if Thailand did not pull its forces back.

Earlier in the day, Thailand had put jet fighters on alert, and prepared for a potential evacuation of civilians from border areas by placing Hercules transporter planes on standby at an air force base in Bangkok.

The foreign minister, Sompong Amornvivat, urged Thais in Cambodia to return home immediately. “Thai businessmen who have no need to be in Cambodia now, please rush back to Thailand,” he said. We have our evacuation plan ready.”

The territorial dispute which led to today’s battle dates back fifty years, but it is only since the summer that it has developed into a political and military crisis. Perched on the top of a 1,600 foot cliff, Preah Vihear can be reached far more easily from Thailand than from Cambodia. But the territory was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice after lengthy legal arguments about maps of produced during Cambodia’s French colonial period.

However, one adjacent packet of jungly land - 1.8 square miles in area - was never clearly allocated, and it is over this that the two countries fought.

The temple’s inaccessible position made it a natural fortress for successive armies which battled over Cambodia – it was the last hold-out of the forces of the Lon Nol regime, driven out by the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1975. Even after their own defeat, Khmer Rouge forces occupied the temple until 1998, sowing the land around it with landmines.

Thai locals and tourists were allowed to visit the temple freely from Thailand without a visa, and the dispute was largely forgotten until July this month when the United Nations cultural organisation, Unesco, granted an application for Preah Vihear to be designate a World Heritage site.

When it turned out that the Thai government had supported the application, nationalists in Bangkok accused ministers of yielding sovereign territory in return for business concessions. Thailand’s constitutional court ruled that endorsing the Unesco application was illegal, and the former foreign minister resigned.

Since then, the Thai government has been under relentless pressure from nationalist demonstrators who want to force it from power. They have occupied the prime minister’s office and fought violent battles with the police.

To take a step back in the confrontation with its smaller neighbour, Cambodia, would invite further denunciation of the government, making it very difficult for Mr Somchai to be seen to compromise. But, apart from saving face, both countries could lose much in any extended military confrontation.

Cambodia is outgunned by Thailand, which has 300,000 troops equipped by the United States. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are barely a third as big and poorly equipped, but many of its men are experienced former fighters of the Khmer Rouge who could quickly bog the Thais down in a guerrilla war.

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Fighting on Thai-Cambodia border

Troops from Cambodia and Thailand have been holding ceasefire discussions after they exchanged fire on the disputed border between the two countries.

A Thai army spokesman said that one Cambodian soldier had been killed and four Thai troops had been wounded in Wednesday's fighting, while an AFP news agency photographer said he witnessed the surrender of 10 Thai soldiers.

Hor Namhong, Cambodia's foreign minister, said that the prisoners would be returned to Thailand if Bangkok requested.

"The prime minister has ordered that the 10 soldiers be treated well," he told a news conference in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian military said that the two sides exchanged fire for about two hours

Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, a Thai army spokesman, blamed the Cambodians started the battle, which he said only lasted for about 40 minutes.

"It was triggered by a Thai patrol unit's encounter with their Cambodian counterpart ... the Cambodian side ignited fighting with rifles," He said.

Sunsern said that he believed the ongoing talks between the two armies would prevent the situation from escalating.

Evacuation appeal

Sompong Amornvivat, Thailand's foreign minister, called on Thai nationals in Cambodia to leave as soon as possible.

"Thai businessmen who have no need to be in Cambodia now, please rush back to Thailand ... We have our evacuation plan ready," Sompong said.

The border clash came after Cambodia had said that 500 Thai troops had started to deploy close to the area containing the ancient Preah Vihear temple.

Thai television on Wednesday showed military lorries loaded with tanks heading toward the border and troops setting up mortars, while the Thai air force said their fighter jets were on stand-by.

"Normally we have fighter jets on stand-by at various regional headquarters ready for operation within five minutes, but under the current circumstances we have increased our readiness," Group Captain Montol Suchookorn, the Thai air force spokesman, said.

Before the fighting broke out on Wednesday, Somchai Wongsawat, the Thai prime minister, gave assurances that Thailand would not resort to violence and that talks would resume.

"If there is a problem, we will use peaceful means with an emphasis on negotiations," he said.

"I want to insist that we will use peaceful negotiations. We will not be an invader. We will not use violence."


On Tuesday morning, Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister, said Thai troops had tried to advance into Cambodia's territory but that Cambodian soldiers had "waved them back".

"They must withdraw," he had told an economic conference in Phnom Penh, giving a noon deadline and warning of "armed clashes" if Thai troops continued to "trespass" across the border.

Brigadier-General Yim Pim, a Cambodian army commander, later said all Thai troops had retreated about 90 minutes before the deadline and returned to camp.

A Thai army spokesman initially denied Yim's claim but General Viboonsak Neepan, the Thai army's regional commander, later said that troops on both sides had pulled back slightly.

At the centre of the dispute is Preah Vihear, a 11th century Hindu temple which the UN listed as a World Heritage Site in July, a ruling that re-ignited a decades-old feud.

Both countries have long claimed the temple but the World Court awarded it to Cambodia in 1962.
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2 Killed on Thai-Cambodian Border

BANGKOK — Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged rocket and rifle fire for about an hour on Wednesday in a confrontation at their border over a disputed 900-year-old mountaintop temple, according to reports from the area. At least two Cambodian soldiers were killed, the Cambodian foreign minister said.

Several hundred soldiers from both sides have faced each other at the border since July, when Unesco, the United Nations agency, approved Cambodia’s request to have the temple named a World Heritage Site.

Foreign Minister Hor Namhong of Cambodia said two Cambodian soldiers had also been wounded. A spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry said seven Thai paramilitary soldiers were wounded. Ten Thai soldiers surrendered to the Cambodians, according to news reports in the capital, Phnom Penh.

The two nations have made claims for decades over the temple, Preah Vihear, which stands at the lip of an escarpment on the border looking out over the mountains of northern Cambodia.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice awarded the temple to Cambodia, based on a map prepared at the start of the century by colonial French rulers. Unesco placed the temple in Cambodia partly based on that map when it awarded Preah Vihear world heritage status.

As a result of the rising tensions, Thai officials said they had prepared aircraft to evacuate some 1,500 citizens living in Cambodia. Thai authorities ordered a similar evacuation in 2003 when Cambodians rioted in the capital in protest against Thailand, setting fire to Thai businesses and to the Thai Embassy.

That earlier violence also involved claims to a temple, in that case the crown jewel, Angkor Wat, which is well within the borders of Cambodia.

“Thai businessmen who have no need to be in Cambodia now, please rush back to Thailand,” Foreign Minister Sompong Amornwiwat said Wednesday.

Thai nationals were reported to have huddled in a hotel in Phnom Penh for safety, uncertain if they should evacuate. Riot police were deployed outside the Thai Embassy.

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia on Tuesday issued an ultimatum to about 80 Thai soldiers to withdraw from a portion of the temple area. His noon deadline passed, with the Cambodian side saying the Thais had retreated and the Thais saying there had been no troop movements.

“At any cost we will not allow Thai troops to invade this area,” Mr. Hun Sen said Tuesday. “I would like to be clear about this. It is a life-and-death battle zone.”

In an effort to ease tensions, the Thai and Cambodian regional military commanders were scheduled to hold talks Thursday. The fighting on Wednesday was not the first since the two sides have deployed soldiers at the temple. Early this month, one Cambodian and two Thais were reported wounded in an exchange of gunfire.

Three days later, two Thai soldiers lost legs when they stepped on some of the many thousands of land mines strewn through the area.

Thailand’s 300,000-strong military is far better equipped and trained than the Cambodian army, with F-16 fighter jets and Blackhawk helicopters. But Cambodian soldiers have been fighting in the area for decades and are hardened by guerrilla warfare.

The disputed temple was in the hands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas until a decade ago, when the movement collapsed, 19 years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh. Many soldiers and commanders in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are former members of the Khmer Rouge.

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Thai FM explains border tensions with Cambodia

The Thai Foreign Ministry met ambassadors of eight Asean members to explain the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Veerasak Futrakul announced on Tuesday.

Philippine envoy failed to attend the meeting.

Veerasak said he told the envoys of the border clash between Thailand and Cambodia on October 3 and of the Thai troops stepping on mines while patrolling,

He pointed out the dispute area should have been free of landmines because they had been cleared earlier.

According to Thai News Agency, the Thai officials had entered the area to examination and found new mines of a variety never previously used in Thailand had been laid.

Thailand believes Cambodia laid the landmines following the October 3 border clash.

Such action violates the Ottawa Convention to which both Cambodia and Thailand are signatories.

Veerasak also expressed bewilderment at Cambodian Prime Minister Somdej Hun Sen's ultimatum for the withdrawal of Thai troops from the disputed areas because the Cambodia leader had previously supported bilateral efforts to solve the dispute.

However, he affirmed Thailand would attempt to protect and maintain its sovereignty to the utmost of its ability.
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Ex-Khmer Rouge men jailed for Briton's death

• Cambodian army general among four found guilty
• Verdict raises hopes for UN-backed genocide court

Four former Khmer Rouge guerrillas were jailed by a Cambodian court yesterday over the kidnapping and murder of a British mine clearing expert and his interpreter 12 years ago. Three of the accused were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and a fourth got 10 years for their parts in the killings of the former British army engineer Christopher Howes and Huon Hourth.

The rare convictions of ex-Khmer Rouge fighters appear to reflect a new determination by the government of the prime minister, Hun Sen, that augurs well for the delayed UN-backed genocide tribunal.

Howes, 37, from Backwell, near Bristol, was murdered in the Cambodian jungle days after he was seized along with a 30-strong team from the British-based Mines Advisory Group (Mag) in March 1996. But his fate remained a mystery for two years until Scotland Yard detectives investigating the disappearances found fragments of bone in a fire used to try to destroy the evidence.

The Phnom Penh court heard that three of the accused, including a former senior Khmer Rouge commander who became a Cambodian army brigadier-general, combed the fire's ashes for fragments to show to the communist guerrilla group's army chief, Ta Mok.

The Khmer Rouge's military commander had passed down the order from the leader, Pol Pot, that Howes should be killed on the grounds that foreigners in the country were helping the Cambodian government.

It was only after the final defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1998 and the defection of most of the guerrillas that it was confirmed Howes had been killed near the 12th century Angkor Wat temple complex. It was another 11 years before the five accused - Khem Ngoun, 59, Loch Mao, 54, Puth Lim, 58, Sin Dorn, 52, and Cheath Chet, 34 - were arrested in the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng and charged.

Yesterday, Howes' sister, Patricia Phillips, said: "Although we have never sought revenge, we are pleased that the murderers have been brought to account."

Ngoun, Ta Mok's chief of staff who became a brigadier-general in the Cambodian army, Mao and Lim, admitted they had been present when Howes was shot dead and burned. But all accused another guerrilla, Nget Rim, who has since died, of firing the fatal shot. They each received 20 years for being part of the murder conspiracy, while Dorn, who played a smaller role early in the kidnapping, was given 10 years. Chet was freed.

The court heard that Howes was given the chance to leave to fetch ransom money for the Mag team, but he chose to remain, a decision that earned him a posthumous Queen's Gallantry Medal.

Most of the Mag team escaped or were freed within a day of the kidnapping, though Howes and Hourth were held and taken towards Anlong Veng. Hourth was killed when he was deemed "no longer necessary" as Ngoun could speak English to Howes.

Five of the most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders have been indicted by the separate UN-backed tribunal in an effort to bring to book those responsible for the deaths of up to 1.7 million people in Cambodia's "killing fields" during the regime's four-year reign up until 1979.
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PM: Cambodians not to fear economically strong China

Cambodia should view China's economic prosperity as an opportunity but not a threat, national media Wednesday quoted Prime Minister Hun Sen as telling the two-day Fourth Asia Economic Forum Phnom Penh Tuesday.

"Don't wish that China should be poor. We should wish that China should be rich. It isn't a threat. It will help us ... (China's ) neighbor Cambodia and ASEAN will receive benefits," English-Khmer language newspaper the Cambodia Daily quoted him the president as saying.

In addition, the premier said that China could help deal with the current global financial crisis because China still has a large amount of foreign-exchange reserves and potential of economic growth".

According to the Chinese Embassy, the bilateral trade volume between China and Cambodia increased from 12.95 million U.S. dollars in 1992 to 933 million U.S. dollars in 2007.

China is currently the second largest investing country and the fourth largest donor country for Cambodia.

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Official: Cambodia likely to weather world economic upheaval

PHNOM PENH, Oct. 15 (Xinhua) -- A senior official of the Cambodian Ministry of Economy and Finance said that the Kingdom is likely to weather the recent global financial crisis, national media reported Wednesday.

The global financial crisis will affect Cambodia's economy, but for the time being there is no substantial impact, Aun Porn Moniroth, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Economy and Finance, told the Phnom Penh Post in an interview.

"Cambodia's financial sector has little direct exposure to outside markets. We have no stock market, and banks in Cambodia have not borrowed much money from foreign banks," Aun Porn Moniroth said.

"We do not expect a significant impact, but we may experience a secondary impact through countries such as (South) Korea," he said.

"(South) Korea has been affected by this crisis, and it has invested in and opened bank branches in Cambodia. So there will bean impact, but we do not know the full extent yet," he added.

In addition, Aun Porn Moniroth said that the Cambodian garment sector would be affected by the crisis in particular.

"We predict that the crisis will affect exports such as garments, but this is an indirect impact," he said.

"The crisis will primarily affect economic growth in the countries that serve as our principal markets. Demand in those markets could drop, so our exports will do the same," he added.

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War rhetoric heats up in Thailand-Cambodia spat

Former Khmer Rouge soldiers wanted to see how long can Thailand' fighter jets will be flying. And how many fighter jet can Thailand afford to fall off the sky?

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Thailand put jet fighters on standby and Cambodia said its troops were on alert Wednesday as war rhetoric heated up between the neighbors in a tense border dispute.

Both sides said they had sent additional troops to the border and were ready to respond militarily if attacked, a day after Cambodia issued an ultimatum to Thailand to pull back its soldiers from disputed territory near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple.

"Our forces are on alert and ready to support the army's possible operations on the border," said Thai air force official Group Capt. Montol Satchukorn. "These are just precautionary measures. It's not that we are going to war."

The precautions included putting jet fighters on alert at air force bases nationwide and C-130 transport planes on standby at a base in the capital, Bangkok, to evacuate Thais living in the border area "if the tension escalates to a military confrontation," Montol told The Associated Press in Bangkok, Thailand.

Cambodia's deputy defense minister, Gen. Neang Phat, said, "We remain on alert and have readied our forces adequately to protect our territory." He declined to say how many Cambodian troops had been deployed in the area.

The conflict is the latest flare-up in a decades-long dispute over a contested stretch of jungle near the Preah Vihear temple. The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over some surrounding land has never been clearly resolved.

Tensions flared July 15 after UNESCO, the U.N. agency, approved Cambodia's bid to have the Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site, leading some in Thailand to fear that its claims over the nearby land would be undermined.

Cambodia deployed about 800 troops to the border after the UNESCO decision, and Thailand sent some 400 soldiers. Both sides pulled back most of their troops in late August, but passions flared again recently.

A brief gunfight broke out between the sides earlier this month, with one Cambodian and two Thai soldiers wounded. Both sides claimed the other fired first and blamed each other for being on the wrong side of the border. Three days later, two Thai soldiers lost legs when they stepped on land mines in the area.

As of late Tuesday, the opposing troops were only about 100 yards (meters) apart, said Gen. Viboonsak Neepan, the Thai Army commander for the region.

"We have sent more troops to be stationed near the area but only enough to resist (an attack). We will not attack first," Viboonsak said.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sparked concerns Tuesday that an armed conflict was imminent, accusing Thai troops of having advanced into Cambodia's territory and declaring it a "life-and-death battle zone."

"They must withdraw," Hun Sen said in the capital, Phnom Penh. "I have set the timeline for them to withdraw by 12 o'clock."

There was no fighting despite the heated rhetoric, although the two countries disagreed on who backed down.

Cambodian army commander Brig. Gen. Yim Pim later said all Thai troops had retreated about 90 minutes ahead of the deadline and were back inside their camp about half a mile (0.80 kilometers) from the contested territory.

However, Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd denied that any troops had been pulled back and the Foreign Ministry issued a toughly worded statement that said, "If Cambodia resorts to the use of force, Thailand will have no choice but to exercise its right to self-defense."

Thailand's prime minister and military officials said their country's troops had been on their own territory all along.

"If there is a problem, we will use peaceful means with an emphasis on negotiations," said Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat. "We will not be an invader." Somchai is also under intense political pressure at home from anti-government protesters seeking his resignation.
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