THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The highest U.N. court ordered Thailand and Cambodia Monday to pull their soldiers out of a newly defined demilitarized zone around a disputed temple and to revive talks to resolve the decades-old conflict.
Tens of thousands of villagers on both sides have been relocated and 18 people have been killed in fighting between Cambodia and Thailand since February, when tensions flared again over ancient Hindu temples.
Defining a demilitarized zone around the temple in a legally binding ruling, the court decided by 11 votes to five that the situation "remains unstable" and "could deteriorate" and urged Thailand and Cambodia to hold talks.
Presiding judge Hisashi Owada said there was a real and imminent risk to Cambodia's rights because of the tension and absence of a settlement. He ordered both states to let observers from the Association of South East Asian Nations enter the area.
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said Bangkok would honor the ruling and that setting up a demilitarized zone would not prevent further talks over its claims to the area.
"We are satisfied that the withdrawal of troops is applicable to both Cambodia and Thailand which is against the wish of the Cambodian which," Kasit told reporters at the court.
"We need to talk to one another ... let's come to the negotiating table."
Cambodia declined to comment to reporters in The Hague.
Both Cambodia and Thailand lay claim to land around the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in a dispute that has turned into Southeast Asia's bloodiest conflict in a decade.
The dispute, due in part to internal political dynamics in both Cambodia and Thailand, has dented ASEAN's credibility for its apparent inability to broker a lasting peace deal.
Sovereignty over the ancient, stone-walled Hindu temples -- Preah Vihear, Ta Moan and Ta Krabey -- and the jungle of the Dangrek Mountains surrounding them has been in dispute since the withdrawal of the French from Cambodia in the 1950s.
The ICJ first ruled over the Preah Vihear temple in 1962, awarding it to Cambodia, but both countries lay claim to a 4.6 sq km (1.8 sq mile) patch of land around it and Cambodia said it wants the ICJ to explain the meaning and scope of its judgment.
The court unanimously reject Thailand's request to have the case dismissed Monday and ordered Cambodia be allowed free access to the Preah Vihear temple to provide supplies to non-military personnel and that Thailand must not obstruct Cambodia's access.
Although its rulings are legally binding, the ICJ has no means to enforce its decisions.
(Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block, Editing by Timothy Heritage)