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Cambodia opens UN court legal fight with Thailand

THE HAGUE, May 30 – Cambodia on Monday launched a bitter legal battle before the UN\’s highest court, asking it to order an immediate Thai troop withdrawal around the ancient temple of Preah Vihear, scene of heavy clashes earlier this year.

"We will ask the court to swiftly provide the provisional measures to protect the peace and avoid an escalation of the armed conflict in the area," said Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong, who represents Cambodia.

"Cambodia is asking the court to implement measures to prevent further destruction of the temple and the area around it," he told a 16-panel of judges before the International Court of Justice based in The Hague.

At least 18 people were killed and 85,000 were temporarily displaced in weeks of clashes in February over the ownership of the small patch of land around the ancient Khmer temple. The court ruled in 1962 that the temple itself belonged to Cambodia.

"Thailand is under obligation to withdraw any troops in the area around the temple," the Cambodian representative said.

He said that although there had been clashes in the past, Thai aggression substantially increased after July 2008, when the UN\’s cultural body UNESCO listed the temple as a World Heritage site.

"It\’s time for the voice of international law to speak loudly," Nor Namhong said, calling the ICJ "the guarantor."

That is why we brought this dispute here — it has been going on too long," he said.

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Thailand was expected to make its first public submission later Monday, and Thai officials at the court refused to comment ahead of the case.

But Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters in Bangkok that it was "unncessary" for the court to consider Cambodia\’s petition.

"The request violates the previous ruling. … We will fight based on the court\’s jurisdiction and facts. When Cambodia won the last case, the Thai government followed the ruling and has done so since 1962."

The 11th-century complex has been at the centre of an ongoing legal wrangle between Thailand and Cambodia — which took its southeastern Asian neighbour to the ICJ in 1958.

The UN court ruled in 1962 the 800-year-old Khmer temple belonged to Cambodia, but both Phnom Penh and Bangkok claim ownership of the 4.6-square-kilometre (1.8-square-mile) surrounding area.

Cambodia last month asked the ICJ to explain that ruling, with the ICJ saying it would rule on a clarification at a later stage.

It also asked for an immediate order to force Thailand to clear troops from the patch of land around Preah Vihear, built atop a mountain range which straddles the border between the two countries.

The ICJ has set down two days for public submissions after which judges will convene and give a ruling, said a source close to the court who asked not to be named. Two more hearings for submissions are also scheduled for Tuesday.

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