PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (Reuters) - 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.
Life had returned to normal at one small pagoda near the center of the fighting, 600 km (350 miles) east of Bangkok, with children running around in the dirt while their parents cooked and cleaned, said a Reuters photographer at the scene.
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 a Reuters reporter in Thailand via mobile phone.
The hilltop Preah Vihear temple has stirred nationalist passions in both countries for generations, but officials on both sides have toned down their rhetoric since the fighting.
“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.”
The confrontation comes amid great political instability and an economic slowdown in Thailand, as protesters in a long-running Bangkok street campaign urge the army to launch a coup against the elected government.
“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.
Preah Vihear, or Khao Phra Viharn, as the Thais call it, sits on a jungle-clad escarpment overlooking northern Cambodia but has been accessible mainly only from Thailand.
The International Court of Justice awarded it to Cambodia in 1962, a ruling that has rankled with Thais ever since.
The court failed to determine the ownership of 1.8 square miles (4.6 sq km) of scrub next to the stunning but remote Hindu ruins, which have been off-limits to tourists for months.
The small parcel of land became highly politicized in July when protesters trying to overthrow the Thai government adopted it as a cause, accusing Bangkok of selling off Thai soil.
Bangkok has urged its citizens to leave Cambodia, mindful of the 2003 torching of its embassy and Thai businesses in Phnom Penh by a nationalist mob incensed by a row over Angkor Wat, another ancient temple.
Security was beefed up outside the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, but there were no crowds outside and it was operating as normal, a Thai official told Reuters.
Several big Thai companies have operations in Cambodia and some have pulled out Thai nationals, but they said operations were normal.
Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan in Kantaralak, Ek Madra in Phnom Penh, Ed Cropley in Bankgok; Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Alan Raybould and Paul Tait