Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fighting at Thai-Cambodia border kills 2 soldiers

Ker Munthit (AP, 10/15/08)

Thai soldiers set-up heavy artillery near the border with Cambodia. Thailand and Cambodia exchanged fire in a clash over disputed land which left two soldiers dead and several wounded (AFP/Str).
Cambodian villagers, seen, leaving Anlong Veng, Cambodia, near the Thai border, 10/16/08. A tense border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia erupted into a gunbattle that killed two soldiers Wednesday, but officials from both sides downplayed the violence and called for resolving the conflict through talks, not bullets (AP Photo/Heng Sinith).
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- A gunfight broke out Wednesday between Thai and Cambodian troops at a disputed border zone near a landmark 11th-century temple, killing two Cambodian soldiers and escalating a conflict that has raised fears of war. The two neighboring countries almost immediately scrambled to reassure each other and the world that they wanted a peaceful resolution.

Reuters video
The deaths were the first in four months of tension — the latest flare-up in a decades-long dispute over a contested stretch of jungle near the Preah Vihear temple. The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over some surrounding land has never been clearly resolved.

Cambodian army commander Brig. Gen. Yim Pim said fighting had "paused" in the afternoon. Cambodia announced that its regional military commander, Lt. Gen. Chea Mon, will meet Thursday with his Thai counterpart in talks to ease the tense situation. Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said the two countries' foreign ministers were already talking. "Cambodia is a good neighbor. We will use peaceful means. If there is violence, we have to negotiate," he said. The clash came a day after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an ultimatum to Thailand to pull back its soldiers from the disputed territory.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Wednesday that the U.S had noticed an increase in tensions along the border and "would urge restraint on both sides to refrain from any use of violence." He said they should peacefully resolve their differences. Tensions flared anew on July 15 after UNESCO approved Cambodia's bid to have the Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site, sparking fears in Thailand that its claims over the nearby land would be undermined.

Cambodia deployed about 800 troops to the border after the UNESCO decision, and Thailand sent some 400 soldiers. Both sides pulled back most of their troops in late August, but the conflict flared again recently. Both countries accused the other of firing first in Wednesday's clash. It was not immediately clear how many troops were involved.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said two of its soldiers were killed and two were wounded in fighting near the temple that lasted less than an hour. Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd said five Thai soldiers were wounded. Hor Namhong said 10 Thai soldiers have surrendered, were being well-treated, and would be returned to Thailand, though he did not say when. Thailand denied that any of its soldiers were taken prisoner.

A Thai army spokesman, Sansern Kaewkumnerd, said the military did not want to see the situation deteriorate further. Thailand's Foreign Ministry said it had prepared aircraft if an evacuation of Thai citizens in Cambodia was ordered. "We are ready for an evacuation if necessary, but right now, there has been no order to evacuate," said ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat. He said there were about 1,000 Thais in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and 500 Thais in the city of Siem Reap.

Earlier Wednesday, Thailand put fighter jets on alert at air force bases nationwide and C-130 transport planes on standby at a base in the capital, Bangkok, that could evacuate Thais living in the border area "if the tension escalates to a military confrontation," Thai air force official Group Capt. Montol Satchukorn said.

"Our forces are on alert and ready to support the army's possible operations on the border," Montol told The Associated Press. "These are just precautionary measures. It's not that we are going to war." Cambodia's deputy defense minister, Gen. Neang Phat, said, "We remain on alert and have readied our forces adequately to protect our territory."

A brief gunfight broke out between the sides earlier this month, with one Cambodian and two Thai soldiers wounded. Both sides claimed the other fired first and blamed each other for being on the wrong side of the border. Three days later, two Thai soldiers lost legs when they stepped on land mines in the area.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker and Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, Thailand and Foster Klug in Washington contributed to this report.

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