Published: July 19, 2011 at 6:22 AM
BANGKOK, July 19 (UPI) -- Thailand and Cambodia must withdraw their troops from around the Preah Vihear Temple to reduce military confrontation along their border, the International Court of Justice said.
However, a senior Thai military leader said there would be no immediate withdrawal of troops from the temple, which sits on an isolated hilltop of less than 2 square miles.
The temple and surrounding area has been a flash point for around 60 years. The latest round of fighting claimed the lives of more than a dozen Thai soldiers and an unknown number of Cambodians.
Thousands of people have fled the area.
The ruling by the ICJ, which sits in The Hague, is in response to Cambodia's petition in April for an interpretation of a previous ruling that awarded sovereignty of the temple area to Cambodia.
The dispute has focused on access and ownership of land around the 900-year-old Hindu Preah Vihear temple, since 2008 a World Heritage site, in the Dangrek Mountains on the Thai-Cambodia border.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the temple was on Cambodian land but some access to the mountaintop site passes through Thai territory, a route that Thai troops occasionally seal off.
Fighting has flared in the area within the past several years, notably in October 2008 when two Cambodian troops died and seven Thai troops were wounded in an hourlong gun battle.
The latest series of clashes has been condemned by the United Nations and the regional Association of South East Asian Nations, to which Thailand and Cambodia belong.
The ruling is a victory for Cambodia in that it reinforces the previous ruling. It is also a snub to outgoing Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who asserted that Cambodia should talk directly to Thailand and not resort to the ICJ.
"If Cambodia agrees and returns to talks with Thailand, both countries will benefit," Abhisit said in early June. He also refused to allow international observers near the site.
The court agreed on a vote of 11-5 that Thailand and Cambodia immediately withdraw troops from the disputed area and for the area to become a temporary demilitarized zone.
The court also voted 15-to-1 for both sides to continue cooperation within ASEAN and allow observers access to the area.
But a Thai army spokesman said Thailand is in no hurry to withdraw its troops.
"No matter what the ICJ's ruling is, troops of Army Region Two will remain in the area (around Preah Vihear) to protect the land and sovereignty of our country," army spokesman Col. Prawit Hukaew said.
"The number of Thai troops in the area is adequate to deal with any situation that might occur along the Thai-Cambodian border."
Any withdrawal will come on direct orders of the head of Thailand's army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, he said.
The ICJ ruling is a final blow to Abhisit, who is a caretaker prime minister about to leave office after losing national elections at the beginning of the month.
He also resigned as leader of the Democrat Party immediately after losing to his party's main rival the Pheu Thai Party, led by the neophyte politician Yingluck Shinawatra, 44. She is the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains on the run from the law.
Critics of Yingluck, who will be Thailand's first female prime minister, say real government power will lie in Dubai where her brother lives in self-imposed exile.
Thaksin, 61, was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and soon after received a 2-year prison sentence for tax fraud. He fled in 2008 rather than serve his sentence, leaving an estimated $2 billion in frozen assets.
He is wanted most recently for allegedly helping organize the major street protests that crippled parts of central Bangkok last year from February to May. The demonstrations left 90 people dead and some 2,000 injured.
He denies all charges against him and said he called for peace by the protesters during the demonstrations.
This week the country's Election Commission will give its final stamp of approval on the election results after investigating several accusations of corruption.
The EC is investigating allegations that Yingluck allowed certain banned politicians to assist her in the election campaign. Also Abhisit is suspected of being involved in a form of vote-buying, a report in the Bangkok Post newspaper said.
The election of Yingluck could usher in more consensual politics in a country hotly divided between rural poor and urban wealthy voters. She already has announced the cementing of a coalition with four other smaller parties, raising the number of government seats to 299 out of 500.
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