Thai troops pulled out from a disputed border area near Preah Vihear temple Tuesday ahead of a deadline set by Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodian officials said, but the Thai government denied that any withdrawal had taken place.
“After negotiations between Srey Dek, RCAF Intervention Unit 12 commander, with a Thai commander at an area near Preah Vihear temple, Thai soldiers who came into the Veal Entry on [Monday] have retreated from the area before 11 am,” the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a Tuesday statement.
The reported pullback from Veal Entry, or “Eagle Field,” came after Hun Sen on Monday issued an ultimatum that Thai troops withdraw from the area by Tuesday or face the possibility of war.
“I told them to withdraw [their troops]; the ultimatum is 12 pm,” Hun Sen reiterated earlier Tuesday morning. “If we lose the Veal Entry site, it means that we lose Preah Vihear temple. We couldn’t allow them [to take it.] We will pay whatever it costs so that we don’t allow Thai soldiers to stand there,” he told reporters.
“I have ordered all the military commanders that they must be responsible for the site because the place is a life-and-death battlefield,” Hun Sen said.
“An ant can cause an elephant not to sleep,” Hun Sen added, apparently using the saying as a metaphor for the damage the Cambodian army could inflict on the larger and better-equipped Thai army .
Srey Dek and Chea Morn, RCAF Region 4 commander, confirmed the Thai pullout from Veal Entry by telephone Tuesday.
Sar Thavy, Preah Vihear provincial deputy governor, added that RCAF’s Brigade 43 now holds the area.
Thai officials, however, denied the reports.
“What we can confirm is we haven’t done any withdrawal,” Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat said by telephone from Bangkok on Tuesday evening.
He added that the troops in question were on a demining mission in the area, which he said was Thai territory, after two Thai soldiers lost limbs to landmines there Oct 6. The troops were not part of a new deployment, he said.
“We think we are doing our duty on our land,” he said.
Tharit added that he didn’t know of negotiations between local commanders, but they could possibly have taken place because “[t]he channels of communication are open between the two militaries.”
In a statement Tuesday, the Thai Foreign Ministry said it was “surprised” by Hun Sen’s ultimatum because Thailand remained committed to a peaceful bilateral resolution of the issue.
“If Cambodia does resort to the use of force in accordance with its so-called ultimatum, Thailand will have to exercise its right of self-defense,” the statement read.
The Thai statement also confirmed that there would be a meeting of the regional border committee Oct 21, as Cambodia requested Monday. The Thai statement added that the committee would meet today “at the working level,” but Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said he had no knowledge of any such meeting.
In a separate statement from the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry on Tuesday night, Thailand said it had briefed Asean countries’ ambassadors and chargé d’affaires on the latest development on the border.
The statement repeated the Thai version of recent events at Veal Entry including an Oct 3 firefight between Thai and Cambodian troops and the Oct 6 landmine explosion.
The statement claimed the landmines had been laid after the Oct 3 skirmish, contrary to the Cambodian claim that the mines were leftovers from the civil war.
“Thailand sincerely hopes Cambodia will reconsider its ultimatum and allow the peaceful bilateral process already begun to resume,” the Ministry’s statement added.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)