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Military denies it laid mines

Preah Vihear Province

Cambodian officers deny they planted explosives on border

CAMBODIAN military commanders in Preah Vihear province, where Thai soldiers lost limbs to land mines on Monday, have denied laying new mines on the disputed border, countering claims by Thai troops that they are planting explosives.

"I completely deny the accusation by Thai soldiers that Cambodian troops are putting down new mines," said Yim Phim, commander of RCAF Brigade 43, which is stationed in the area near Preah Vihear temple. "All of these mines were laid during the war in the 1980s and 1990s," he added Tuesday.

The border area in northwest Cambodia remains one of the most heavily-mined regions in the world, the result of fierce fighting during the Kingdom's protracted civil war.

A senior provincial official in Thailand's northeastern Si Sa Ket province said Monday that the two wounded Thai troops "stepped on a land mine that was most likely planted by Cambodian troops before they left that area".

The mine incident followed last Friday's firefight between Cambodian and Thai troops that slightly wounded three soldiers and was the first armed clash to erupt on the border since a standoff over disputed territory began in July.

After an apparent detente that saw hundreds of troops from both sides deployed away from the border following a series of crisis talks between Cambodian and Thai officials, the violence has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the negotiations on land that both countries claim.

The de facto front line remained tense Tuesday, with Cambodian troops stockpiling ammunition, saying they were worried about a Thai assault.

Villagers living in the area also said they feared fighting. "The situation looks worse and worse every day," said restaurant owner Sieng Leng. "The soldiers sometimes tell me to leave.... The situation is still very confused and people are worried about security."

Bangkok continues to maintain that last week's shootout was started when Cambodian troops crossed into Thailand and that Thai rangers had only fired back in self-defence. But on Tuesday Thailand softened its tone towards the incident, which it had previously called a "brutal and aggressive act".

"The whole incident may have resulted from a misunderstanding," the Thai foreign ministry said on its website, adding that the land mines that wounded the Thai troopers "were likely placed there some time ago, though this had to be verified".

Khem Sophoan, director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, the country's main demining agency, said he knew of no new plan to lay land mines. "Even if there was a plan, [RCAF] could not do it because it's illegal," he said.

Both sides have expressed cautious optimism that the border dispute will come closer to resolution when the prime ministers from the two countries meet Monday. "If the meeting is fruitful, it will help things, but we don't know what will happen," RCAF's Yim Phin said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA AND AFP

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