preah vihear temple – A tense calm hung over Preah Vihear temple Thursday as RCAF commander of operations Srey Dek held more than four hours of talks with Thai military officials following hostilities Wednesday.
The meeting ended without an agreement to withdraw troops, but both sides used softer rhetoric than in previous days.
“The situation is normal,” Srey Dek said. “[The Thais] will not withdraw, but we will not patrol face to face [in the disputed area].”
“The negotiations have reached a deal that there will be no gunfire, just like before,” he added.
RCAF secretary-general of staff Neak Vong said Thais and Cambodians had agreed not to enter the area where the fighting occurred.
Thai officials told Thai and foreign media the two countries had agreed to joint border patrols, although neither Srey Dek nor Neak Vong mentioned such a deal.
Thai army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkumnerd told The Associated Press in Bangkok the deal was made to “reduce chances of a misunderstanding that could lead to another clash.”
In a statement Wednesday, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said two Cambodian soldiers were killed in the fighting, but Srey Dek and Preah Vihear Provincial Deputy Governor Sar Thavy said the death toll now stands at three, without giving more details on the third man killed.
The atmosphere at the temple was muted as Cambodian troops waited for information on the talks, which Srey Dek attended across the border in Thailand accompanied by Funcinpec Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bun Chhay.
Returning on foot at about 4 pm, Srey Dek told reporters the 10 Thai troops who had been disarmed at the Preah Vihear pagoda during Wednesday’s clash had been freed.
“As Samdech [Hun Sen] ordered us, we did not torture them,” he said. “We cooked them food.”
Srey Dek said the 10 Thai troops would be allowed to come and go between Thai and Cambodian territory as before.
The news of the prisoners’ release could not be independently verified.
A request earlier Thursday to interview the detained Thai troops was declined by RCAF soldiers guarding the small group. The Cambodian soldiers said the Thais were “sleeping,” although two Thai border rangers could be seen sitting on a wooden bench inside the small pagoda.
Srey Dek also said that further talks will take place but that no date has been set.
As residents continued to flee from Anlong Veng district in neighboring Oddar Meanchey province and districts around the temple, hundreds of troops from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, backed by armored personnel carriers and mobile missile launchers, took up position at the town of Sra’em, about 30 km from Preah Vihear mountain.
RCAF deputy commanders-in-chief Kun Kim and Meas Sophea, along with Hing Bunheang, chief of Hun Sen’s bodyguards, and Chap Pheakdei, commander of the 911 paratrooper battalion, held meetings with troops in Anlong Veng town and on Preah Vihear mountain Thursday.
On the Thai side, two Thai air force fighter jets could be seen flying in Thai airspace for about 40 minutes Thursday afternoon.
Despite the reports of reconciliation, the governments of Thailand and Cambodia continued issuing statements protesting the other’s actions.
In response to Thai claims that Thai troops had only entered the disputed area Wednesday for a demining mission, the Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement Thursday saying such a unilateral move from Thailand was against previous agreements between the two countries.
The statement also repeated that Cambodia has long banned the use of landmines and did not plant the mines that severely injured two Thai soldiers Oct 6, as Thailand has suggested.
Thailand again protested the fighting, which it blames on Cambodia, in a statement from its Foreign Affairs Ministry on Thursday. The statement also updated the number of Thai soldiers injured in Wednesday’s fighting to seven.
The opposition Sam Rainsy Party issued its own statement Thursday condemning what it called an “invasion” on the part of Thailand and expressing support for the troops.
“The Sam Rainsy Party…demands the government takes this invasion to the UN without delay,” the statement read.
But the international community continued to push for a bilateral solution. In a statement from his spokesman Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “deep concern” about the incident.
“[The Secretary-General] calls on both parties to exercise utmost restraint and urges them to expedite bilateral talks so that their differences can be resolved peacefully,” the statement read.
The chief of Prasat village near the temple, Horm Sokha, 50, said families there had been running short of food and donations from the public. Though abundant before, the aid had stopped in the past two weeks following the first border skirmish Oct 3.
“We have enough water but not enough food,” he said. “I don’t know why no one is offering any donations.”
Two hundred civilians living at the temple said they were terrified when the fighting started and fled in a group to the fourth, southernmost compound in the Preah Vihear temple complex. Dozens of families have now set up home inside the ornate stone hallways of the temple.
“I was cooking at the time when the shooting started,” said Kim Seng Yen, 29, mother of a 2-year-old boy. “I grabbed my child, and I started to run to the temple. I then ran back for my rice.”
(Additional reporting by Isabelle Roughol and Eang Mengleng.)