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Thailand, Cambodia in deadly border clashes

Written By vibykhmer on Friday, April 3, 2009 | 8:38 AM


Friday April 3, 2009

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Thai and Cambodian troops fought heavy gun-battles on their disputed border Friday, leaving at least two soldiers dead in the biggest flare-up for months in a bitter feud over an ancient temple.

Soldiers exchanged rocket, machine-gun and mortar fire near the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the frontier, following a brief skirmish earlier in the day, officials from both sides said.
The area was the scene of several clashes last year after Cambodia successfully applied for United Nations world heritage status for the ruins in July, with four soldiers killed in a battle there in October. One Thai soldier died at the site of the clash on Friday and another passed away in hospital later, while 10 others were injured, regional Thai military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Wichit Makarun said.

Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith initially announced that two soldiers from his country were killed, but later retracted the statement, saying it was an unofficial figure but without providing further details. "We are fighting with each other, it is serious gunfire," Khieu Kanharith said, adding that the fighting happened in at least two separate areas near the temple.

Military commanders later held talks to ease tensions near the clifftop temple, ownership of which was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice, although the land around the ruins remains disputed. But a war of words continued between the two sides after the clash, coming just one week before the prime ministers of the neighbouring countries are due to meet at a key regional summit in Thailand.

"This is an intended aggressive invasion by the Thai military," said Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong. "The foreign ministry will... write a protest letter about the invasion by Thailand."

Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva said he was ready to call his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen about the matter but defended Bangkok's right to "preserve our sovereignty." "It was likely caused by a misunderstanding or accident," Abhisit said on his return from the G20 summit in London.

The first clash erupted on Friday morning after Cambodian soldiers went to inspect an area where a Thai soldier lost a leg in a landmine blast a day earlier. Both sides blamed each other but said there were no casualties.

Heavy gunfire then broke out at 2:00 pm (0700 GMT) in a number of spots near the border, which has never been fully demarcated due to landmines left after decades of war in Cambodia. Several officials said the fighting lasted between half and hour and an hour.

A Cambodian soldier posted at the border, Yeim Kheang, told AFP by telephone that a Cambodian market at the gateway to the temple had been badly burned. "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," Yeim Kheang said.

The clashes came three days after Hun Sen warned Thailand that it would face fighting if its troops crossed their disputed frontier. Thailand denies claims that about 100 of its troops went over the frontier a week ago.

Tensions first flared along the border in July last year over the granting of UN heritage to the temple on the border, although the countries have been at loggerheads over the site for decades. Subsequent talks between Cambodia and Thailand have not resolved the dispute and Thailand's foreign minister was forced to apologise Thursday, after being accused by Hun Sen of calling him a gangster.

Further talks are due on Monday and Tuesday in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen and Abhisit are also scheduled to take part in a summit between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and key regional partners in the Thai resort of Pattaya, starting on April 10.

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