CAMBODIA has awarded French oil giant Total the rights to a contested drilling area in the Gulf of Thailand.
The announcement was contained in a press release dated July 14 - Bastille Day - from Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cabinet during his official visit to France.
The statement was confirmed to the Post by Prak Sokhon, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers, who is in France with Hun Sen.
Both Thailand and Cambodia claim a 27,000 square kilometre swath of the seabed, which is thought to be rich in oil and gas deposits.
The area in the press statement that has been awarded to Total is referred to as Block III.
In the statement, Hun Sen said the decision to award the concession was made after proper overview of bidding documents, adding that he welcomed the presence of any French companies wishing to invest in Cambodia, a former French colony.
The news was a surprise to Total's leading upstream executive in Cambodia, Jean-Pierre Labbe.
Last week he told the Post that Total had been negotiating with Phnom Penh for several years and in 2008 submitted an official request for concessions.
Contacted by phone on Tuesday, Labbe said he had not heard an official response from the government on the bid.
"I don't know. We knew the Cambodian Prime Minister [Hun Sen] is visiting France, but we have no feedback from Paris," he said.
A source at the Council of Ministers, who asked not to be named, said it was likely that Total's bid had come up in discussions in Paris, but was unable to provide detailed information and referred all questions to the prime minister's Cabinet.
Hun Sen is accompanied on his trip by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
The director general of the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority (CNPA), Te Duong Tara, hung up when called about the issue, saying he was too busy to comment.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner reportedly welcomed the announcement.
Stephane Dion, managing director of Total Cambodge, told the Post during an interview last week that the firm was in ongoing discussions with Phnom Penh on offshore and onshore concessions for oil and gas exploration.
"[There are] at two different projects that we are interested in," he said at the time.
Minister Hun Sen left on Thursday for a five-day visit to France at the invitation of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The trip was aimed at boosting ties between the two countries. "This visit is to strengthen cooperation between Cambodia and France," said Koy Kuong, a spokesman for Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.