ASEAN ministers to discuss Thai-Cambodia conflict

JAKARTA, Feb 22, 2011 (AFP) - Southeast Asian foreign ministers met Tuesday to discuss a deadly border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand which has claimed at least 10 lives and displaced thousands, officials said.

But with Thailand steadfastly rejecting any outside mediation it is unclear what the other eight ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can do to end the row.

AFP file - A Cambodian soldier walks past the Preah Vhear temple in Preah Vihear province on February 8, 2011.

The Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat said the "urgent meeting" would seek "possible solutions" to the bloody dispute, which has seen exchanges of small arms, mortars and artillery.

Thailand and Cambodia have each accused the other of starting the clashes around the 900-year-old Hindu temple of Preah Vihear. The temple belongs to Cambodia but the surrounding area is claimed by both sides.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who attended a meeting between the two sides and the UN Security Council in New York last week, said the time had come for them to resolve their differences peacefully.

"We are waging peace, not waging war... We are meant to resolve our problems through negotiations," he told reporters at the start of the talks.

"So out of this meeting and all the efforts that we've been doing I'd like to make it absolutely clear that for fellow ASEAN member states the option of conflict, the option of use of force, is not meant to be on the table."

Phnom Penh has called for third-party mediation to help achieve a permanent ceasefire but Bangkok insists the dispute should be resolved bilaterally, and has urged Cambodia to return to the negotiating table.

Tuesday's talks in Jakarta will be the first meeting between Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and his Thai counterpart, Kasit Piromya, since they met behind closed doors at the UN in New York on February 14.

The conflict is a test for ASEAN, which lacks any strong conflict resolution framework, and for founding member Indonesia which took over the chair of the block at the start of the year.

Natalegawa has offered to mediate and the UN has backed ASEAN's efforts to help resolve the conflict, but Thailand has said it needs no outside help.

"It's not about pushing, it's more about how things should be. Both sides recognise that you would want to have some conducive atmosphere on the ground for negotiations to take place," Natalegawa said.

"There are good intentions from both countries," he added.

The minister's spokesman, Michael Tene, said the talks would explore ways ASEAN could "facilitate and create conducive conditions for the two countries to carry out... negotiations".

"The UN supports ASEAN's efforts to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the conflict and the meeting today will discuss the modalities," he told AFP.

Asked whether Thailand would agree to outside mediation, he said: "Let's just say now that both countries have accepted facilitation from Indonesia."

Ties between the neighbours have been strained since Preah Vihear was granted UN World Heritage status in July 2008.

The World Court ruled in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia, but both countries claim ownership of a 1.8-square-mile (4.6-square-kilometre) surrounding area.

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