Cambodia says four Thai soldiers were killed as Bangkok plays down fighting as 'misunderstanding'
Friday 3 April 2009
Mark Tran and agencies
Several soldiers died in a clash between Thai and Cambodian troops near an 11th century temple, with each side blaming the other for the latest flare-up in a disputed border area.
Cambodian officials said four Thai soldiers died and 10 were detained as troops fired at each other with machine guns and rocket launchers. Seni Chittakasem, the governor of Thailand's eastern Si Sa Ket province, confirmed that one Thai soldier was killed and said seven were wounded.
The incident was the latest in a long-festering dispute over the cliff-top Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodian side of an ill-defined border. Clashes in the area last year briefly brought fear of war.
A clash this morning was followed by artillery fire that lasted about 30 minutes.
Thailand's defence minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, played down the fighting. "It was an accident, a misunderstanding among officials on the ground, which is common when you are closely positioned," he told reporters in Bangkok.
A Cambodian soldier posted at the border, Yeim Kheang, told Agence France-Presse by telephone that a Cambodian market at the gateway to the temple had been badly burned during the fighting.
"We used heavy weapons including rockets, machine guns and mortars. In general, we used every weapon given to us. Many Thai soldiers ran away, leaving their weapons behind during the fight," he said.
Tensions had been high since an exchange of shots early in the morning after Cambodian soldiers went to investigate the area where a Thai soldier stepped on a mine on Thursday and lost his leg.
The exchange of fire came two days after Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister, warned Thailand of fighting if its troops crossed their disputed frontier. Thailand denies claims that about 100 troops crossed the frontier a week ago. The Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, said he was ready to call his Cambodian counterpart but defended Bangkok's right to "preserve our sovereignty."
"It was likely caused by a misunderstanding or accident. I have asked every agency to work to solve the incident by creating a better understanding with Cambodia," he said on his return from the G20 summit in London.
Hun Sen and Abhisit are both scheduled to take part in a summit between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and key regional partners in the Thai beach resort of Pattaya next week.
The temple is located in an area that has long been a source of contention as Thailand and Cambodia share an 800-kilometre (500-mile) border, much of which has never been clearly demarcated because the countries refer to different maps.
Cambodia's French colonial masters claimed the temple, using a disputed 1907 map that marked the frontier. But when the French left in 1954, Thai troops seized the ruin. They only grudgingly left after the international court of justice in The Hague awarded it to Cambodia in 1962, but they held on to an adjacent 4.6 square kilometre patch of disputed scrub.
The court's ruling has rankled with Thai nationalists since then. When the UN awarded Preah Vihear world heritage site status in July last year, it once again became a flashpoint. Subsequent talks between Cambodia and Thailand have not resolved the dispute and Thailand's foreign minister apologised yesterday, after being accused by Hun Sen of calling him a gangster.
Preah Vihear has become a burning issue in Thailand's fraught domestic politics. Analysts say the Abhisit government – already perceived as ineffectual – cannot afford to be seen as weak on the issue.
"This is so touchy for the Thai government as it is seen as a test of its mettle," said Tim Forsyth, a Thailand expert at the London School of Economics. "It is all part of a crisis of legitimacy for the government."