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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

More troops sent to Thai-Cambodian border as fighting goes on

Peace talks cancelled and prime ministers of both countries engage in war of words

Cambodian villagers forced to leave their village near the Thai border in Oddar Meanchey province on Wednesday. Photograph: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

Military reinforcements, including heavy artillery and trucks packed with soldiers, poured into the area along the Thai-Cambodia border as fighting between the two countries entered into its sixth day with neither side showing signs of backing down.

Shelling and mortar fire between the two sides has led to tens of thousands of refugees evacuating to border camps with at least one civilian and 13 soldiers reported killed in the firefight.

The conflict is the most serious fighting between the two nations in decades and stems from a demarcation carried out in the 1950s by an international court which left the 12th-century Ta Moan and Ta Krabey temples and surrounding jungle areas in Cambodian territory.

Early on Wednesday morning mortar fire could be heard near the temples after fighting broke out at 5.15am and lasted nearly an hour. The fighting destroyed seven homes and injured more than 40 civilians.

"We are preparing for fighting in the early evening," Thai military spokesman Colonel Prawit Hookaew said from his busy makeshift headquarters. "This is the worst fighting we have had for a very long time."

In Thailand, heavy artillery and trucks packed with well-equipped soldiers could be seen travelling along empty highways towards the frontline. On the Cambodian side, truck-mounted rocket launchers are reportedly being deployed to the border.

In order to protect civilians from the mortar fire, more than 50,000 refugees on both sides of the border have been moved to camps away from the fighting. Cambodian military have reported villages being hit by mortar nearly 20km from the border.

Previous hope for an end to the fighting was lost when planned peace talks between Cambodia and Thailand were cancelled on Wednesday.

At a surprise visit to Koke Klang temporary refugee camp – home to more than 3,000 villagers who have escaped the fighting – Thailand's prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, blamed Cambodia for the postponed meeting.

"We are ready to have talks with Cambodia, they said they wanted to, but then they continued to attack Thai troops so we had to cancel the meeting," he told refugees as they sat around on straw mats in the school-cum-camp. "Thailand will not invade Cambodia but if they attack us then we are prepared to fight back in order to save the country."

Cambodia said on Tuesday it would refuse bilateral talks until the meeting of Asean countries in Jakarta in May and are seeking international mediation.

Making some of his first comments on the conflict, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen said in a speech to a women's group on Wednesday that Abhisit was to blame. "The current Thai leader likes war, provokes war," he said. "Cambodia is a small, poor country and has fewer forces, but don't you forget that an ant can make an elephant not get any sleep," he said. "Cambodian's weaponry is not just slingshots."

Despite the official line of conflict over sovereignty, experts believe domestic politics in both countries are to blame for the conflict. The Thai army is said to be dragging on the conflict by rejecting Indonesian observers, in order to exert its power and retain relevance in Thai politics.

In Cambodia, some believe Hun Sen is attempting to wield nationalist sentiment to gain support for his son. It is also believed that he could be attempting to discredit Abhisit and therefore boost support for opposition parties in the forthcoming elections.
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Cambodia PM welcomes talks after Thai border clashes

By Prak Chan Thul Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen offered Wednesday to meet one-on-one with his Thai counterpart after six days of sporadic fighting that has killed at least 14 people, raising hopes of a ceasefire in Southeast Asia's bloodiest border dispute in years.

Both sides remained on high alert near two disputed 12th-century Hindu temples following a night of shelling that killed a Thai villager and exchanges of heavy artillery that began before dawn and lasted several hours.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, in his first public comments on the conflict, called Thailand's premier a "thief" whose government committed "terrorism," but said he was willing to discuss clashes at the two temples in one-on-one talks.

"Cambodia wants to solve the issue peacefully with talks," Hun Sen, a fiery orator and former soldier, said in a speech, adding he would raise the issue with Abhisit and other Southeast Asian leaders during a summit in Indonesia on May 7-8.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he would welcome talks if Cambodia "ends the use of violence."

"If they want talks, the easiest thing to do would be to stop the attacks and return to talks within the framework that already exists," Abhisit told parliament.

The fighting has killed eight Cambodian and five Thai soldiers, and one Thai civilian. More than 60,000 people have taken refuge in emergency evacuation centers.

A meeting between Thai and Cambodian defense ministers expected Wednesday was abruptly canceled after Cambodian media reports suggested Thailand had admitted defeat, said Thai Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd.


Sovereignty over the ancient, stone-walled Hindu temples -- Preah Vihear, Ta Moan and Ta Krabey -- and the jungle of the Dangrek Mountains surrounding them has been in dispute since the withdrawal of the French from Cambodia in the 1950s.

But many experts say the fighting is fueled more by political interests than territorial claims, as each government seeks to discredit the other by appealing to nationalists at home, especially ahead of a Thai election due by July.

A change in government could be in Cambodia's interests.

Analysts said the Thai military could also be flexing its muscles to preserve its sizeable stake in Thailand's political apparatus and to satisfy conservative elites at odds with the country's powerful opposition forces.

Thailand says it wants a bilateral solution, while Cambodia has sought international mediation and the deployment of independent monitors in the disputed area as agreed by Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers in Jakarta in February.

Those differences are posing a major test for ASEAN, a 10-member bloc with ambitions to become a regional community by 2015 and a viable counterweight to China's growing clout.

It is also a potential embarrassment for Indonesia, whose foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, had brokered the U.N.-backed ceasefire pact in February that would have placed unarmed Indonesian military observers along the disputed border.

The Thai army objected and the deal never went through.

Thailand's foreign minister is due to meet with Natalegawa Thursday in Jakarta.

(Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok and Sukree Sukplang in Surin. Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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