A Change of Guard

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Sunday, 17 August 2008

Cambodia, Thailand withdraw from disputed temple: official

Cambodians pray at the disputed Preah Vihear temple. Cambodian and Thai armies have pulled back almost all troops from a disputed territory around an ancient temple.

(AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy)

PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AFP) - Cambodian and Thai armies pulled back almost all troops from disputed territory around an ancient temple Saturday afternoon, according to a Cambodian official.

More than 1,000 soldiers from both countries have been stationed around a small pagoda near the Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodia-Thai border for a month in a fraught stand-off.

They began to withdraw "step-by-step" late Friday after a military agreement was reached two days earlier, but most troops remained until a large-scale drawdown at 4:00pm (0900 GMT) on Saturday.

"Now nearly all our military has been redeployed... only 50 troops from each side remain," Cambodian defence official Neang Phat told AFP.

"It is a 100 percent positive act with a lot of improvement," he added.

Neang Phat earlier said only 20 troops from both sides would remain stationed in the pagoda while 40 troops from both sides would be allowed close by.

Security around the temple was tightened mid-afternoon with visitors prohibited and journalists banned from taking pictures of the site.

Relations between the neighbours flared up last month after Preah Vihear, which belongs to Cambodia, was awarded heritage status by the United Nations , angering nationalists in Thailand who still claim ownership of the 11th century Khmer temple.

On July 15, Cambodia arrested three Thai protesters for illegally crossing the border to try to reach the temple, sparking the deployment of troops from both sides on a tiny patch of disputed land near Preah Vihear.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia, but surrounding land remains in dispute.

The Cambodian-Thai border has never been fully demarcated, in part because the border is littered with landmines left from decades of war in Cambodia.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said Thursday he had approved a 1.4-billion-baht (41.7-million-dollar) mine-clearing operation on the border.

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