The UN's highest court has ordered Thailand and Cambodia to immediately withdraw military forces from disputed areas around a World Heritage temple straddling their border.
The International Court of Justice drew a "provisional demilitarised zone" around the 1,000-year-old Preah Vihear temple that would push Thai troops back from positions they have long occupied and would see Cambodian armed forces leave the temple's immediate vicinity.
At least 20 people have died since 2008 in clashes between the two countries that were ongoing until last April when military commanders verbally agreed to a cease-fire.
By a vote of 11-5, the judges of the court went beyond Cambodia's request to order Thai troops out of the area, and imposed restrictions on both armies and police forces. It said it decided to intercede to avoid the risk of more clashes and further damage to the ancient Hindu shrine.
It also called on the two nations to allow officers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations into the area to observe the cease-fire, which was called for by the UN Security Council last February.
The court ruled in 1962 that Preah Vihear is in Cambodian territory, a judgment Thailand does not dispute. But the earlier ruling failed to draw definitive boundaries. Cambodia went to the UN tribunal for clarifications on "the meaning and scope" of the ruling. Thailand argued that the court has no need to take further action.
Both sides said they were satisfied with the decision. Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya noted the court had declined Cambodia's demand for a unilateral Thai pullback. A withdrawal of armed Cambodians from the temple complex "has been our consistent position", he said outside court.
He said the decision is binding on both countries, and Thailand would abide by the ruling to withdraw forces and facilitate the observers' deployment. Thailand also agreed to the court's instruction to allow unhindered supplies to Cambodian civilian personnel at the temple complex, he said.
Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong said the establishment of a demilitarised zone would mean "a permanent ceasefire" which "is tantamount to a cessation of aggression" by Thailand. He also said he was satisfied with the dispatch of truce observers, which he said Cambodia had been seeking since last February.
The court said its ruling would not prejudice any final ruling on the where the border in the area between Thailand and Cambodia should fall. It could take the court many months or even years to reach that decision.