PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ The government Monday awarded preliminary contracts to five foreign companies to conduct oil exploration in offshore areas under territorial dispute in the Gulf of Thailand.

Minister of the Cabinet Sok An and Industry Minister Pou Sothirak signed conditional petroleum agreements with representatives of Australia's BHP, U.S.-based Conoco, Britain's Enterprise Oil and Japanese oil companies Idemitsu and Inpex.

None of the five companies _ each of which has paid an initial $9.4 million to the government _ can start activities until Cambodia and Thailand agree on development in zones in which they have overlapping claims, Sok An told a news conference.

First Premier Ung Huot said the signing of the contracts ``heralds a new phase in Cambodia's petroleum industry.''

With no clear demarcation of the sea frontier, both Cambodia and Thailand have claimed overlapping areas which are believed to be rich in mineral resources, such as oil and natural gas.

Pou Sothirak said that since demarcation talks between both countries in 1995 failed to produce any results, Cambodia and Thailand decided to reap economic benefits by jointly developing the disputed areas.

He said revenues from the joint development area would be split equally between Cambodia and Thailand.

He said the provisional exploration contracts would be replaced with new ones once Cambodia and Thailand reach a final accord on joint development.