Two Cambodian troops were killed, the first deaths in a 4-month standoff that began when UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, approved Cambodia’s bid to have Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site. Thailand feared its claims over nearby land would be undermined.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an ultimatum to Thailand on Tuesday to pull back its soldiers from the disputed territory, calling it “a life-and-death battle zone.” Thailand moved reinforcements up to the border area.
Thailand also put jet fighters on alert at bases nationwide and C-130 transport planes on standby that could evacuate Thais living in the border area, Thai air force official Group Capt. Montol Satchukorn said.
“We believe they were meant to be warning shots. The Thai troops fired back in self defense,” he said.
The fighting this afternoon lasted for about an hour, with each side accusing the other of firing the first shot.
In a protest handed to the senior Cambodian diplomat in Bangkok, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said Thai soldiers were peacefully patrolling their own territory along the border when Cambodian soldiers shot at them with rocket propelled grenades and submachine guns.
Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry accused Thai troops of launching “heavy armed attacks” at three different locations to push back Cambodians from positions inside Cambodian territory. The battle killed at least two Cambodian soldiers and wounded three.
Five Thai soldiers were wounded, Col. Sansern said.
Cambodia’s foreign minister said 10 Thai soldiers had surrendered, were being well-treated, and would be returned to Thailand. Lt. Gen. Viboonsak Neepan, the Thai Army commander for the region, denied any of his soldiers had been captured.
After the gunbattle, officials in Thailand and Cambodia tried to lower tensions.
Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said Thailand had no interest in seeing the conflict escalate, and Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said military officials from both sides would meet Thursday in Thailand to discuss the clash.
“Cambodia is a good neighbor. We will use peaceful means. If there is violence, we have to negotiate,” Somchai said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. “would urge restraint on both sides to refrain from any use of violence.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also urged restraint and called on the two sides to quickly resolve the dispute.
Thailand’s more than 300,000-strong military uses modern American equipment and dwarfs Cambodia’s 125,000 less well-equipped troops. Cambodian forces however are well versed in guerrilla warfare after fighting an intense civil war against the communist Khmer Rouge.
Today’s fighting was the latest flare-up in a longtime dispute over a stretch of jungle near the 11th century temple. The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over surrounding land has never been clearly resolved.
The dispute in recent months has become fodder in domestic politics in both countries.
A wave of nationalism fueled by the dispute bolstered Hun Sen’s landslide re-election, and anti-government protesters in Thailand have used it to try to discredit the ruling Thai government and push it to aggressively pursue claims on the land.
“The issue surrounding Preah Vihear temple was over decades ago until it was fanned by nationalist rhetoric for domestic political purposes. The two situations are closely linked,” said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a Thai historian who has written extensively on the dispute.
Both sides sent hundreds of troops to the area after UNESCO’s July action, but most soldiers were withdrawn a month later. The conflict flared again in recent weeks, including a brief gunfight this month that wounded one Cambodian and two Thai soldiers.