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    Thai, Cambodian armies meet after border battle

    Reuters
    16.10.2008 - 11:44 | Son Güncelleme:

    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 armor and troops to the conflict zone.

     

    The 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple has stirred nationalist passions in both countries for generations, but escalation did not appear inevitable as officials avoided belligerent rhetoric.

     

    "Our policy to resolve this conflict is through negotiations," Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat told reporters 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".

     

    But people on the streets of Phnom Penh were angry.

     

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

     

    The confrontation comes amid great political instability and an economic slowdown in Thailand, as protesters in a long-running Bangkok street campaign urge the army to launch a coup against the elected government.

     

    "It's hard to see how Cambodia gains from starting a war with Thailand at this point," said Tony Kevin, a former Australian ambassador to Phnom Penh.
    "But if you look at the very tense and riven state of Thai politics, it's easy to see how a Cambodian war could be of interest as a distraction," he said.

     

    DECADES-OLD DISPUTE
    The International Court of Justice awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, a ruling that has rankled Thais ever since.

     

    However, it failed to determine the ownership of 1.8 square miles (4.6 sq km) of scrub next to the stunning but remote Hindu ruins, which have been off-limits to tourists for months.

     

    The dispute over this small parcel of land became highly politicized in Thailand in July when protesters trying to overthrow the Bangkok government adopted it as a cause.

     

    Some 2,000 soldiers faced off only yards apart in trenches dug into a hillside that 10 years ago was controlled by remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot's guerrilla army.

     

    In Anlong Veng, the site of Pol Pot's grave and about 100 kms (60 miles) west of the temple, the main road was clogged by hundreds of Cambodians on motorbikes and small tractors laden with chairs, pots and other belongings.

     

    At the temple, a Reuters photographer saw three armored vehicles and five trucks arrive loaded with Cambodian troops.

     

    There has been no word on the exchange of 10 Thai prisoners at the 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.

     

    In 2003, Thai commandos flew into Phnom Penh airport in the middle of the night to help evacuate 600 Thais during the riots.

     

    Security was beefed up outside the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, but there were no crowds outside and it was operating as normal, a Thai official told Reuters.

     

    Several big Thai companies have operations in Cambodia and some began evacuating their staff on Wednesday, but flights between the neighbors continued as normal.

     

    Thailand's political crisis has damaged consumer confidence and consumption at a time when exports are sluggish due to the global economic slowdown.

     

    A top adviser to Thailand's finance minister said on Wednesday the country risked sinking into recession in the first half of 2009 if the political stalemate did not end soon.

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