Cambodian and Thai troops fought heavy gunbattles on their disputed border yesterday as months of tensions boiled over, leaving at least three soldiers dead just days before a key regional summit.
Soldiers traded rocket, machine gun and mortar fire near an 11th-century Khmer temple on the frontier, following a brief exchange of shots earlier in the day, officials from both sides said.
The same area was the scene of clashes last year after the Preah Vihear temple was granted UN World Heritage status, with four soldiers killed in a battle in October.
“We are fighting with each other, it is serious gunfire. Two of our soldiers have been killed,” Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said. “The gunfire is continuing in at least two areas.”
One Thai soldier was also killed and seven others were wounded in the clash, said Seni Chittakasem, the governor of Thailand’s eastern Si Sa Ket Province.
Military commanders later held talks to ease tensions, although a war of words continued between both sides over the flashpoint temple, which was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice.
“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 Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he was ready to call his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen about the matter but defended Bangkok’s rights 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.
Authorities confirmed heavy gunfire had broken out at 2pm in a number of spots near the border, which has never been fully demarcated because of landmines left after decades of war in Cambodia.
A Cambodian soldier posted at the border, Yeim Kheang, said by telephone that a market at the gateway to the temple had been badly burned during the fighting.
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 landmine on Thursday and lost his leg.