Troops were on alert at the disputed Cambodian-Thai border yesterday after heavy gunbattles left at least two soldiers dead a day earlier, Cambodian officials said.
The mood was tense after the fighting on Friday, which was the biggest flare-up for months in a bitter feud over territory near an ancient temple.
“The situation at the border is quiet now and back to normal, but, as usual, our soldiers are on 24-hour alert,” said Yem Pem, a Cambodian commander stationed in the disputed area.
Soldiers exchanged rocket, machinegun and mortar fire on Friday near the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple on the frontier, following a brief skirmish earlier in the day, officials from both sides said.
Hundreds of Cambodians who live near the ancient Khmer temple could be seen fleeing the area yesterday, after their homes and the local market were destroyed in the fighting.
The area was the scene of several clashes last year after Cambodia successfully applied for UN world heritage status for the ruins in July, with four soldiers killed in a battle there in October.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sought to downplay the latest incident during a speech yesterday to handicapped veterans and villagers in the southern province of Kampot.
“It is normal that every side has the right to self-defense. If they come, it happens. And as we enter their territory they also have the right to fire at us,” Hun Sen told the crowd.
“But we consider this [clash] an incident. I don’t call it a war ... We are very sorry. We don’t want Cambodian or Thai soldiers to die,” he added.
One Thai soldier was killed at the site of the clash on Friday and another died in hospital later, while 10 others were injured, said the Thai military. Cambodian officials reported no casualties.
A Thai military official said nine soldiers were still being treated in two hospitals in the northeastern Thai city of Ubon Ratchathani, with two of them in critical condition.
Thai Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwon would visit the injured soldiers later yesterday she added.
The clashes came three days after Hun Sen warned Thailand that it would face fighting if its troops crossed into disputed land. 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, 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 apologize on Thursday, after being accused by Hun Sen of calling him a gangster.
Further talks are due address the latest clash tomorrow and on Tuesday in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva are due to take part in a summit between ASEAN and key regional partners in Thailand from Friday.
Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the latest clashes would not affect scheduled talks between the two sides.