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Troops exit temple complex

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Soldiers walk down the mountain near Preah Vihear temple last month. One brigade left the area this week following Hun Sen’s promise to reduce troop numbers around the disputed temple.

Cambodia's Defence Ministry says government has halved deployed troops at Preah Vihear but warns that forces remain prepared for any future hostilities.

Troops stationed at the Preah Vihear temple complex near the Thai border completed their redeployment over the weekend, a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces commander told the Post on Sunday.

Srey Doek, commander of RCAF Division 3, said Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday met soldiers from Brigade 11 during their redeployment to their base in Kampot province.

"[Hun Sen] welcomed them as they travelled near Siem Reap and offered them each 50,000 riels [US$12], and the prime minister's wife offered them gifts of fruit," Srey Doek said.

Srey Doek said the money and fruit were given to nearly 1,000 RCAF soldiers as expressions of gratitude for their service at the front line, adding that troops from other brigades from Siem Reap as well as members of Hun Sen's personal bodyguard who were also redeployed over the weekend did not meet the prime minister.

Meanwhile, an official at the Defence Ministry said Sunday that forces at the border have now been halved.

"We have pulled out 50 percent of the troops from Preah Vihear temple," said ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat.

"This shows that the situation at the border is really getting better, and that both countries have a mutual understanding of peace," he added.

Hun Sen declared last week that the 13-month standoff with Thailand over the disputed Preah Vihear temple complex, which claimed more than seven lives and left hundreds homeless, had effectively ended following a bilateral withdrawal of troops announced during a meeting on August 24 between the head of RCAF, General Pol Saroeun, and his Thai counterpart, General Songkitti Jaggabatra of the Royal Thai Armed Forces.

Troops still on guard
Despite a thaw in relations, Cambodian military officials last week were quick to point out that troops would still be necessary to guard the integrity of the border and the sovereignty of the nation.

Defence Minister Tea Banh said some troops would remain at the border.

"We do not need too many soldiers there now. We are currently adjusting the numbers to achieve the right balance for the situation," Tea Banh said last week.

Chea Dara, RCAF deputy commander in chief, echoed this sentiment Sunday, saying the border's security remained a vital concern and downplaying the impact of the withdrawal on Cambodia's ability to secure its border with Thailand.

"It is not a problem for our soldiers to defend the nation, even as their numbers have been reduced by the withdrawal," he said Sunday. "We have kept enough of our troops in place."

He said if Thailand "shows a softer manner" Cambodia could cut troop numbers further. "However, if anything happened, our troop mobility would be very swift."

Thailand in June reignited the row over the temple when it asked World Heritage body UNESCO to reconsider its decision to formally list the temple in Cambodia.

Cambodia and Thailand have been at loggerheads over the land around Preah Vihear temple for decades.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP

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