Friday, October 17, 2008

October 17, 2008; PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia




Thai and Cambodian army commanders ended five hours of talks on Thursday with no agreement to withdraw their forces after heavy fighting near a disputed 900-year-old temple killed two Cambodian soldiers.

"We did not make much progress. Troops on both sides will stay where they are," Thai General Wiboonsak Neeparn told reporters after returning to the Thai side of the border.

He said they had agreed on joint border patrols to ease tensions after Wednesday's 40-minute gun and rocket battle, the worst clash in years between the fractious Southeast Asian neighbors.

His Cambodian counterpart, General Srey Doek, denied any deal over the site, where soldiers backed by armor and artillery faced off in an area controlled a decade ago by remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot's guerrilla army.

Ten Thai soldiers, whom Phnom Penh said had been captured, wandered freely in their midst and denied they had ever been taken prisoner.

"We drank coffee and watched the TV news together last night," one of them, Apichart Pupuak, told reporters in Thailand by phone.

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

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has kept silent, but his foreign minister urged negotiations, saying the incident was between soldiers and "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."

"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.

China and the United States expressed concern over the violence and urged both sides to use restraint.

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