Thailand evacuating its wounded soldiers.
Both sides have accused each other of firing first in the 40-minute clash, which Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said claimed the lives of two Cambodian soldiers, and Bangkok has urged its citizens in Cambodia to return home.
At least seven other soldiers from both sides were wounded in the most serious incident in four months of tension at the Preah Vihear temple, a 900-year-old Hindu ruin sitting on an escarpment on the border 600km east of Bangkok.
But Mr Hor Namhong said a scheduled meeting between the two countries on the border dispute would go ahead today as planned, suggesting that escalation was not inevitable.
‘It is a good sign that we can start to solve this conflict,’ he told reporters. ‘We consider this an incident between soldiers and not an invasion by Thailand.’
Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat also took a conciliatory stance, saying: ‘Cambodia is a good neighbour. We will use peaceful means. If there is violence, we have to negotiate.’
Mr Hor Namhong said 10 Thai soldiers who had surrendered were being treated well and would be returned to Thailand, although the Thai military denied that any member of its troops was missing.
The monument has been a source of tension between the two nations for more than a century.
The International Court of Justice awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but failed to determine ownership of 4.6 sq km of scrub next to the ruins.
Tensions flared up again this July when Unesco, a United Nations agency, approved Cambodia’s bid to have the temple named a World Heritage Site.
This led some in Thailand to fear that its claims over the nearby land would be undermined, and those fears were whipped up when the Thai anti-government movement adopted it as a cause, unleashing a torrent of nationalism.
Within days, 2,000 soldiers were facing off in trenches dug into a hillside that until 10 years ago was under the control of remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s guerrilla army.
‘The Thai military is very much under pressure to protect the national sovereignty and territory,’ military analyst Panitan Wattanayagorn of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University said.
However, he also said that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a wily former Khmer Rouge soldier, was just as likely to be trying to steal a march on his larger neighbour in the middle of its political turmoil, which has seen violent clashes between police and anti-government protesters on the streets of Bangkok.
Meanwhile, Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat urged Thais in Cambodia to leave at once, mindful of the 2003 torching of the Thai Embassy and Thai businesses in Phnom Penh by a nationalist mob incensed at a row over Angkor Wat, another ancient temple.
‘Thai businessmen who have no need to be in Cambodia now, please rush back,’ he told reporters, adding that the military had an evacuation plan ready if needed.
Singapore and Indonesia have asked both sides to show restraint, with Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying: ‘We are very disturbed by the turn of events…We urge both sides to resolve their differences through further negotiations.’
REUTERS, ASSOCIATED PRESS