The dispute around the Preah Vihear temple has sparked violent clashes between Cambodian and Thai troops [AFP]

Cambodia has launched a bitter legal battle before the UN's highest court over an ancient Hindu temple that has been the scene of clashes between Cambodian and Thai troops.

Phnom Penh requested the International Court of Justice on Monday to issue an emergency order to Thailand to withdraw its troops from the disputed region around the Preah Vihear temple.

The Cambodians are also seeking clarification on a ruling The Hague-based court made in 1962, that asserted that the 800-year-old Khmer temple belongs to Cambodia.

The clashes around the temple, which have left at least 18 people dead and made thousands homeless, have arisen because both Phnom Penh and Bangkok claim ownership of the 4.6-square-kilometre surrounding area.

'Murderous armed incursions'

Hor Namhong, Cambodia's foreign minister, told a panel of 16 judges at the court that "murderous armed incursions" by the Thai military around the Preah Vihear temple are a "grave threat" to regional peace and security.

"Thailand is under obligation to withdraw any troops in the area around the temple," he said.

He said that Thailand was basing its military action around the temple on an "erroneous and unacceptable" interpretation of the court's 1962 judgement.

For its part, Bangkok says it does not dispute Cambodian ownership of the temple but that the 1962 judgement does not include the surrounding area.

"The court did not have the jurisdiction to rule about that," said Kasit Piromya, Thailand's caretaker foreign minister, outside the court room.

He said his nation is in talks with Cambodia to settle what Thailand sees as a border dispute.

"We do not understand why we have to come here when there is already an existing mechanism" for negotiating a border, Kasit told reporters outside the courtroom.

Source: Agencies