Cambodia claims Thai troops cross border in temple dispute

Anti-government protesters seize upon issue to attack the ruling coalition led by the People Power party

Tensions over a disputed border temple escalated yesterday after a Cambodian official claimed 40 troops from neighbouring Thailand had crossed the frontier.

A Thai army chief denied any incursion, but said soldiers had taken up positions on Thai soil near the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple to protect Thai territory.

Hang Soth, the head of the Cambodian authority responsible for the Hindu complex, said the Thai troops had crossed the border near the temple site after three Thai protesters were arrested for attempting to paint a Thai flag on the monument.

"Confrontation is occurring between Thai troops and our Cambodian troops, but there is no shooting yet," Hang Soth said. "Our troops have been ordered to be on alert but not to fire first."

Cambodian guards stopped the protesters, who included a Buddhist monk, and they were later allowed to return after a Thai delegation came to retrieve them.

The Thai army commander in the area disputed the Cambodian version of events, though a number of soldiers were part of a rescue delegation. "We are not violating the territory of Cambodia," said Major General Kanok Netakawesana. "We have every right to deploy troops here to protect our sovereignty."

Cambodia closed the temple to visitors from Thailand three weeks ago after a row over the site was reignited. The dispute centres on land around the temple complex that is situated on a cliff-top. Because of the difficult terrain, access for visitors is vastly easier from the Thai side.

The former Thai foreign minister, Noppadol Pattama, backed a Cambodian application for a Unesco World Heritage listing for the temple, which was granted last week, causing outrage in Thailand.

The minister quit after a Thai constitutional court ruled he had overstepped his authority by offering the government's backing without consulting parliament.

Anti-government protesters who have staged demonstrations in Bangkok for two months seized upon the dispute as another issue on which to attack the ruling coalition led by the People Power party.

The protesters claimed the government of Samak Sundaravej, the prime minister, had lent support to Phnom Penh's listing application for Preah Vihear in return for business concessions in Cambodia for ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The disputed temple was occupied by the Thai military in 1954 after the withdrawal of French troops from Cambodia. Phnom Penh protested to the international court of justice in 1959. In 1962, the court ruled that the temple, whose Hindu roots echo Cambodia's more famous Angkor complex, lay on Cambodian soil.


Ian MacKinnon in Bangkok

The GuardianTramp

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