Deadly fighting erupts at Thai-Cambodian border

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) âÄî Escalating tensions between Thailand and Cambodia over a disputed border near a historic temple erupted Wednesday in a deadly gunbattle, prompting officials to quickly declare that they would resolve the dispute through talks, not bullets. Two Cambodian troops were killed, the first deaths in a four-month standoff that began when UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, approved CambodiaâÄôs bid to have Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site. Thailand feared its claims over nearby land would be undermined. In recent days, as the dispute fueled nationalism in both countries, officials appeared to be preparing for a major confrontation. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an ultimatum to Thailand on Tuesday to pull back its soldiers from the disputed territory, calling it âÄúa life-and-death battle zone.âÄù 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. Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkumnerd said Wednesday that Cambodian soldiers approached a Thai base, refused to leave the area and fired in the air. âÄúWe believe they were meant to be warning shots. The Thai troops fired back in self defense,âÄù he said. The fighting Wednesday 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, ThailandâÄôs 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. CambodiaâÄôs Foreign Ministry accused Thai troops of launching âÄúheavy armed attacksâÄù 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. CambodiaâÄôs 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. âÄúCambodia is a good neighbor. We will use peaceful means. If there is violence, we have to negotiate,âÄù Somchai said. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. âÄúwould urge restraint on both sides to refrain from any use of violence.âÄù U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also urged restraint and called on the two sides to quickly resolve the dispute. ThailandâÄôs more than 300,000-strong military uses modern American equipment and dwarfs CambodiaâÄôs 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. WednesdayâÄôs 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 SenâÄôs 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. âÄúThe 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,âÄù said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a Thai historian who has written extensively on the dispute. Both sides sent hundreds of troops to the area after UNESCOâÄôs 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.