- By: WASSANA NANUAM, THANIDA TANSUBHAPOL and PRASIT TANGPRASERT
- Published: 4/04/2009 at 12:00 AM(http://www.bangkokpost.com/news)
Thai authorities have closed indefinitely tourist spots near the Preah Vihear temple as Thai and Cambodian soldiers clashed twice in the vicinity on Friday, leaving two Thai and two Cambodian soldiers dead, and several injured.
Khmer troops near the temple complex
Closed are Pha Mor E-Daeng cliff, the Khao Phra Viharn National Park and its gate to the Preah Vihear temple in Si Sa Ket province.
According to Maj Gen Thawatchai Samutsakhon, deputy chief of the Second Army, the clashes followed a landmine explosion that blew off a Thai soldier's leg in Phu Ma Khua area a few kilometres west of Preah Vihear temple.
It lies in an area which both Cambodia and Thailand claims to be its own.
After the explosion, 30 Thai soldiers visited the area Friday morning to clear landmines.
Twenty-three Cambodian soldiers showed up and told the Thais to retreat, claiming it was Cambodian soil.
The Thais resisted, and both sides started to fight about 7am.
The clash lasted five minutes, and killed two Cambodian soldiers and injured nine.
A second round of shooting erupted about 2pm, in an area about two kilometres away.
Maj Gen Thawatchai says he assumes Cambodian troops came in search of revenge.
The second round of the gun battle lasted about half an hour, killed two Thai soldiers, injured seven, and also set ablaze a Cambodian market near the entrance to Preah Vihear temple.
Cambodia has deployed more than 3,000 soldiers at the ancient temple ruins and Thailand had slightly over 2,000 troops on Pha Mor E-Daeng cliff, according to some reports.
At the site of the deadly shooting, Phu Ma Khua, both sides left about 300 soldiers each to confront each other late on Friday.
Defence Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon said the morning clash was an accident which could normally result from misunderstandings by low-ranking officers as the forces of both sides were located close to each other.
Army chief Gen Anupong Paojinda said the morning clash resulted from a misunderstanding and officers at the scene would have to work out measures to prevent it from recurring.
Initially, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said it was preparing to take serious action over the clashes but changed its mind in the evening when it acknowledged the incidents were caused by misunderstandings.
Spokesman Tharit Charungvat said army leaders of both sides have arranged to meet and the ministry would wait for the result.
The government will lodge a protest over the incident with Cambodia, according to the ministry.
The government reaffirmed Thailand's sovereignty over the area where the clashes took place. It called on the Cambodian side to avoid any use of force and to continue with negotiations under bilateral mechanisms.
EARLIER REPORT by AFP:
Thai and Cambodian troops fought heavy gunbattles 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, machinegun 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.''
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he was ready to call his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen about the matter but defended Thailand'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, machineguns 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 Pattaya, starting on April 10.