Cambodia takes dispute with Thailand to UN court

Cambodia has asked the United Nations' highest court to order Thailand to withdraw troops and halt military activity around a temple at the center of a decades-old border dispute that has flared into deadly military clashes.

Fighting in recent weeks along the disputed border region in northeastern Thailand that surrounds the Preah Vihear temple has left 16 soldiers and one Thai civilian dead.

In a request filed April 28 and made available Tuesday on the court's website, Cambodia asked International Court of Justice judges to urgently deal with its request "because of the gravity of the situation."

Cambodia claims that according to a 1962 ruling by the court the temple is on its territory and warns that if the intervention request is rejected and clashes continue, "the damage to the Temple of Preah Vihear, as well as irremediable losses of life and human suffering ... would become worse."

The border dispute has stirred nationalist sentiment on both sides. But analysts say domestic politics may also be fueling the conflict, especially in Thailand, where the military that staged a coup in 2006 could be flexing its muscles ahead of elections due in June or July.

The conflict involves small swaths of land along the border that have been disputed for more than half a century. Including the latest fighting, clashes have broken out six times since 2008, when Cambodia's 11th-century Preah Vihear temple was given U.N. World Heritage status over Thailand's objections.

Analysts say the fighting is primarily being driven by domestic tensions within each country rather than tensions between them. Neither side appears to be trying to capture territory, and few believe the conflict will evolve into full-scale war.

The fighting forced tens of thousands of villagers on both sides of the border to flee their homes. Many of them returned this week from makeshift refugee camps as the latest skirmishes eased from artillery barrages to small arms exchanges.

Rulings by the court are supposed to be final and binding on parties.

Cambodia has formally applied for an "interpretation" — a written explanation — by the court of its 1962 judgment, and argued in its written application that the court's opinion "could then serve as a basis for a final resolution of this dispute through negotiation or any other peaceful means."