REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea (CAMBODIA)
PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia’s prime minister called Friday for more talks with Thailand after a deadly armed clash raised fears the two neighbors were headed for a full-scale war over a patch of disputed land along their border.
“We can still talk to each other and are not yet enemies unwilling to talk to each other at all,” Hun Sen said after a Cabinet meeting in the capital.
On Wednesday, a gun and rocket battle near the 11th-century Preah Vihear border temple killed two Cambodian soldiers and wounded three others. Seven Thai troops were also injured.
The fighting lasted about an hour, with each side accusing the other of firing first.
Hun Sen used much more heated rhetoric the day before the fighting, when he warned Thai troops to stop trespassing on Cambodian land, calling the contested territory a “life-and-death battle zone.”
Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkumnerd said military officials from the two sides agreed Thursday to hold joint patrols to reduce tension and the chances of another clash.
But on Friday, Gen. Ke Kim Yan, commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, denied any deal for joint patrols had been reached.
He said the two countries had only agreed to maintain their current troop deployments in the disputed area and inform each other about any troop movements to prevent further misunderstanding.
“The situation has now returned to normal, but the border problems must be solved by negotiations,” Ke Kim Yan told reporters at Preah Vihear temple, where he and other top military brass visited Cambodian soldiers.
However, the situation remained tense, with troops from the two sides still in close proximity to each other.
“We have the same standing order to remain calm but on alert,” said Men Li, a Cambodian army major based near the temple.
Hun Sen, seeking to reassure thousands of Cambodian villagers who have fled their homes near the conflict area, said, “There is no large-scale war occurring.”
“I would not call it a war. This was just a minor armed clash,” said Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighter.
Hun Sen opened the Cabinet meeting in Phnom Penh by leading his ministers in a minute of silence for the soldiers killed during Wednesday’s clash. A third Cambodian soldier died Thursday, apparently from inhaling too much smoke from firing B-40 rockets.
The fighting was the latest flare-up in a decades-old dispute over a stretch of jungle near the temple. The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over surrounding land has never been clearly resolved.
Resurgent Thai nationalism, promoted by a protest group that is seeking to topple the current Thai government, has put authorities in Bangkok under political pressure to aggressively pursue claims to the land.
Associated Press writer Ker Munthit in Phnom Penh contributed to this report.