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Monday, February 07, 2011

Thai-Cambodia clashes kill 1 more before new truce

By Sopheng Cheang


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) - Renewed fighting between Cambodian and Thai troops along the countries' disputed border killed a Thai soldier Saturday and sent thousands of people fleeing before military commanders agreed on the second cease-fire in two days.

The fiercest border clashes in years also damaged a landmark 11th century temple near a strip of disputed land that Thai nationalists have seized on as a domestic political issue.

There are conflicting casualty tolls, but as many as four have died in two days - one civilian each from Thailand and Cambodia, and one soldier from each nation, according to officials from the two countries. Each side blames the other for starting the fighting.

Tensions between the Southeast Asian nations have risen in recent days because of demonstrations by influential Thai nationalist groups in Bangkok demanding that the government oust Cambodians from land near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple. The nationalists claim the land is actually part of Thailand.

The demonstrators - from the same group, the People's Alliance for Democracy, that in 2008 occupied the Thai prime minister's offices and Bangkok's two airports in a bid to force out two previous governments - have said they will escalate their pressure on Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The rally by the PAD - also known as the Yellow Shirts - has raised tensions in a country still recovering from political violence last year in which about 90 people died.

While full-blown war is unlikely, nationalist passions are inflamed in both countries - with no clear way to settle the long-standing territorial dispute surrounding the temple, built during a time when Cambodia's Khmer empire ruled over much of Thailand.

Thai Army Spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said 2nd Region Army Commander Lt. Gen. Tawatchai Samutsakhon met with Cambodian generals after Saturday's fighting to agree on a cease-fire and not to deploy more troops to the area.

The two sides also agreed that Thailand would suspend construction of a road to the disputed area, which covers just 1.8 square miles (4.6 sq km), according to the private Cambodian Television Network, which is close to the government.

"Everything depends on the Thai side. New fighting will erupt if Thai soldiers enter our territory, but there will be no fighting if they do not enter," Cambodian Maj. Gen. Srey Doek told reporters after the meeting.

The latest round of fighting began Friday on land near Preah Vihear temple, a U.N. World Heritage site that belongs to Cambodia under a 1962 World Court ruling disputed by many Thais.

Several mortar and artillery shells exploded just yards (meters) away from Preah Vihear, slightly damaging its walls and setting grass and several trees nearby ablaze, said Gen. Chea Tara, the deputy commander of Cambodia's armed forces.

Thailand's Foreign Ministry said at least 3,000 people have fled their homes, while Sar Thavy, deputy governor of Cambodia's Preah Vihear province, said 1,000 families had been evacuated.

Thailand initially said the flare-up could have been caused by a misunderstanding, but Cambodia described it as a deliberate "Thai invasion," claiming that as many as 300 Thai soldiers advanced Friday on a small pagoda to try to take down the Cambodian flag.

Ath Vicheth, a Cambodian soldier in the area, told The Associated Press by telephone that Saturday's began after a group of Thai soldiers tried to cross the border in search of missing soldiers.

Thai Army Spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, however, denied the claim and said no Thai soldiers were missing or captured. He said eight Thai soldiers have been wounded since Friday and 13 homes were either burned down or damaged. One Thai soldier was killed Saturday, he said.

The Preah Vihear issue was virtually dormant until Cambodia successfully applied in 2008 to UNESCO to have the temple declared a World Heritage site, an application backed by the government in power in Thailand at the time.

Thai nationalists have argued that the action threatened Thailand's sovereignty, though their protests were seen mainly as a way of rallying criticism to help oust the Thai government. Both countries' leaders, defending their patriotic credentials, then built up military forces at the border.

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Associated Press Writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report from Bangkok, Thailand.

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Cambodia and Thailand Continue Armed Clash Over Temple

By Seth Mydans

THNAL BEK, Cambodia — Refugees clustered around cooking fires at a schoolhouse here as Cambodia and Thailand prepared for the possibility of further violence after a fourth day of shelling on Monday at their disputed border.

The Cambodian Army cleared out military vehicles and construction equipment and evacuated villagers from the foot of a steep cliff that is the site of an 11th-century Hindu temple claimed by both sides.

The dispute involves a century-old French colonial map, a ruling by the International Court of Justice and a decision in 2008 by Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, to list the temple, Preah Vihear, as a Cambodian World Heritage site.

It has become tangled within the complex knot of Thai politics as well as simmering enmity between the two neighbors that has erupted into violence near the temple several times since the World Heritage listing.

The current fighting is the most sustained engagement between the two nations. As many as five civilians and soldiers have been killed on both sides, according to Thai and Cambodian news reports.

Cambodia urged the United Nations to send peacekeepers to the border area one day after asking the Security Council to convene an urgent meeting to “stop Thailand’s aggression.”

“We will go to the Security Council whether you like it or not,” Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, said in a speech on Monday, addressing his counterparts in Thailand. “The armed clash is threatening regional security.”

Thailand has always taken the position that the dispute is a bilateral issue and that there is no need to involve outside organizations.

The Thai Foreign Ministry sent its own letter to the Security Council on Monday formally protesting what it called “repeated and unprovoked armed attacks by Cambodian troops.”

Each side has accused the other of initiating the conflict and of shooting first in each exchange of shelling.

“Thai soldiers had no choice but to exercise the inherent right of self-defense,” said Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The Cambodian government said Thai shelling had damaged part of the temple, but reporters were barred from the conflict area and the report was impossible to verify.

Late Sunday, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said in a statement that he was “deeply concerned” by the fighting and urged both sides “to exercise maximum restraint.”

In the dispute, each side offers a different interpretation of a French colonial map drawn up at the beginning of last century.

The temple is most easily accessible on the Thai side. It can be reached only up a steep cliff on the Cambodian side.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia.
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