(AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AFP) — Thailand and Cambodia exchanged fire on the border on Wednesday in a clash over disputed land which left two soldiers dead and several wounded, officials said.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said two of his country’s soldiers were killed and two wounded in the clashes, which erupted sporadically for more than two hours before tapering off.
Lieutenant General Wiboonsak Neeparn, the army commander for northeastern Thailand, said five Thai troops were wounded but later announced military talks in a bid to resolve the dispute.
Gunfights broke out in the afternoon in a number of small patches of disputed land just a few kilometres (miles) from the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, a UN World Heritage site on Cambodian territory.
Cambodia and Thailand have been sparring over the land since July and tensions mounted this week after talks on Monday failed and about 80 Thai troops entered a disputed area, enraging Cambodia.
After the fighting ended Wednesday, Cambodian and Thai officials traded barbs over who had started the violence.
“The gunfire between Cambodia and Thailand was in Cambodia’s territory. Thai troops opened fire at our troops first,” Hor Namhong told reporters, before issuing a statement to the media addressing the Thai government.
“Cambodia strongly protests against these repeated and very serious armed provocations by Thailand which would lead to large scale armed hostilities between the two countries,” it said, announcing a complaint would be lodged with the UN Security Council.
Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said the situation along the border had returned to normal but added that Bangkok would lodge a complaint with Phnom Penh.
“We are not the ones who ignited the violence,” Somchai told reporters but added that he was confident the tensions would be resolved.
Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornviwat told AFP he was ready to issue the order for all Thais to be evacuated from Cambodia if need be.
A Cambodian army official said at least 10 Thai soldiers stationed in a disputed area had surrendered — a claim denied by Wiboonsak.
Thai TV on Wednesday showed military trucks loaded with tanks heading toward the border and troops setting up mortars while the Thai air force spokesman said before the clashes erupted that fighter jets were on stand-by.
Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, the Thai army spokesman, earlier confirmed there had been a reinforcement of troops by both Thailand and Cambodia but declined to say how many Thai soldiers were being readied.
The United States, meanwhile, urged both Thailand and Cambodia to show restraint and resolve differences “via political channels and political means.”
UN chief Ban Ki-moon also urged the countries to resolve their differences peacefully.
“The secretary general is deeply concerned about the exchange of gunfire today along the Cambodia-Thailand border and the reported casualties,” added a statement issued by his spokeswoman Michele Montas.
A meeting between both armies would be held on Thursday at 11am (0400GMT) in Thailand to discuss troop levels and weaponry, both sides confirmed.
The stand-off between the neighbours first flared in July after Preah Vihear was awarded World Heritage status by the UN cultural body UNESCO, angering some Thai nationalists who still claim ownership of the site.
The situation quickly escalated into a military confrontation, with up to 1,000 Cambodian and Thai troops facing off for six weeks, although both sides in August agreed to reduce troop numbers in the main disputed area.
Tensions flared again this week after failed talks on Monday aimed at cooling the months-long standoff.
The Cambodian-Thai border has never been fully demarcated, in part because it is littered with landmines left over from decades of war in Cambodia.