PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia and Thailand withdrew their army troops Wednesday from a disputed border area near an ancient temple, as the Southeast Asian neighbors try to defuse a decades-long dispute that has turned deadly in recent years.
Some 485 Cambodian troops and an undisclosed number of Thai forces pulled back from a demilitarized zone near the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple, complying with a ruling last year by the International Court of Justice.
The court had awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, and while Thailand accepts that decision, both countries lay claim to land around it.
The dispute has led to several rounds of armed conflict in the past four years. Eighteen people were killed in the last serious fighting in April last year.
In July 2011, the court responded to an appeal from Cambodia by ordering both countries to withdraw their troops completely and simultaneously from the 17.3-square-kilometer (6.7-square-mile) provisional demilitarized zone around the temple.
Following the withdrawal of their army troops, both countries are now deploying police forces in the demilitarized zone.
Cambodian troops smiled and waved to a cheering crowd Wednesday after they took part in a withdrawal ceremony and carried their arms to military trucks that took them away from the site.
Cambodia's deputy defense minister, Gen. Neang Phath, said 255 police have been stationed in the demilitarized zone and another 100 on the grounds of the temple, which is recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage site.
Cambodia's 2008 application for Preah Vihear to become a World Heritage site reignited passions over the temple, which many nationalistic Thais claim as their own. The application came at a period of serious political discord in Thailand, which increased Thai sensitivity over an alleged threat to its territorial integrity.
Thai Defense Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat and Army Commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha traveled to the Thai side of the border to take part in their country's own withdrawal ceremony, which saw army soldiers replaced by about 300 armed border patrol police officers.
Tensions over the border have eased in the past year with the installation of a new Thai government that is more sympathetic to Cambodia. However, little progress appears to have been made in resolving the core issue of competing territorial claims.
Cambodia's 2008 application to the International Court of Justice also included an appeal for clarification of the 1962 court decision awarding it the temple, to see if it can resolve the dispute over 4.6 square kilometers (1.8 square miles) of land around it.