samraong city, Oddar Meanchey province – Border fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops near Preah Vihear temple erupted yesterday, breaking an unofficial cease-fire reached there in February, while shelling between the two countries continued for the fifth straight day in Oddar Meanchey province, according to military officials.
Thai forces shelled Cambodian positions on Phnom Trap mountain just west of Preah Vihear temple for 20 minutes just after 1:30 pm, a Defense Ministry statement said. The statement claimed the fire came just after a trio of Thai F-16s flew overhead, sowing confusion among both sides’ ranks.
“The Thai aircraft raised tensions, which caused [soldiers] to shoot at each other,” Defense Minister General Tea Banh said, declining to comment further.
Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Chhum Sucheat said Cambodian forces held their fire and that he had no reports of casualties.
It marked the first report of shelling across a disputed 4.6-square-km stretch of border near the temple since four days of deadly fighting ended there on Feb 7.
About 150 km to the west, in Oddar Meanchey province, Gen Banh said heavy shelling also resumed at about 2:30 pm around Ta Moan temple, where fighting has occurred daily since Friday.
The most recent bout of fighting here has killed at least 10 soldiers and displaced tens of thousands of civilians on both sides.
Fighting also erupted at three points in O’Smach district around 6 pm, said Vath Paramin, director of the provincial administration.
The Defense Ministry yesterday raised the number of Cambodians displaced by the fighting to 23,745, though provincial governor Pich Sokhin placed the figure above 28,000.
Nearly all of those displaced have been heading to a handful of camps the government has set up in Samraong City, about 30 km from the border.
And many of them have headed to Prasat Reacha Samroang pagoda, with more than 5,400 refugees alone.
From one corner to the pagoda grounds to the other, families huddled under every bit of shade they could find with the few belongings they could scrape together before leaving.
Ou Nim and her five children fled Bansay Reak commune on Friday with a few small bags of rice and an armful of spare clothes.
“They shelled over the village. If we didn’t leave we would be hit,” she said. “I’m scared they will shell my house but I don’t know what to do.”
Like other families at the pagoda, she had no complaints about conditions and said authorities were supplying them with adequate if meager rations. Families here recall years of civil war between government forces and Khmer Rouge holdouts through the 1980s and ’90s.
Still, she worried about heading back home in time to till her rice field before the arrival of the rainy season now due in weeks.
“I am afraid I cannot get back in time to cultivate my land,” she said. “I am angry at Thailand.”
With the pagoda grounds filled to capacity, Samraong City property bureau chief Kranh Men, who had come to monitor the situation, said most new refugees were being sent to a new shelter on the outskirts of town.
With operations there only hours old, conditions were less crowded but more chaotic with city staff registering a steady stream of new arrivals.
Most were coming from O’Smach commune.
Though their border with Thailand had yet to see any fighting, refugees said they had been set to flight by a recent buildup of Thai forces just across from them.
Duon Sieng, a motorcycle driver who regularly ferries passengers across the local border checkpoint, said he saw a line of some 20 Thai tanks heading toward the front lines on Monday.
“Most of us are very scared and we’re terrified the fighting will spread,” he said, mending a camouflaged hammock for the night.
Like most other refugees, though, he had no complaints about their conditions but for the lack of mosquito nets.
Steps away, however, Cambodian Red Cross staff were taking a steady stream of health complaints and dolling out pills. Iev Makara, a nurse, said most were suffering from diarrhea, probably from a lack of clean drinking water. A provincial health official standing nearby, who declined to give his name, insisted clean water was readily available.
In Bangkok, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said the fighting–and Cambodia’s refusal to answer Thailand’s calls for bilateral talks–would force a full review of relations, Thai media reported yesterday.
“Since Cambodia showed no intention to negotiate, we have to revise our relationship with the country in a bid to return peace and safety to people along the border area,” he said.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong called plans to review cooperation “ridiculous,” particularly since he said Thailand was the aggressor.
“For Cambodia, no problem. No problem at all,” he said. “Even though we are the victims, we have no intention to review the bilateral relations.”
The Defense Ministry said Gen Banh would meet with his Thai counterpart in Phnom Penh soon to try and diffuse the border situation.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a Monday statement expressed concerns about the clashes and called on both sides to reach a peaceful resolution.
“We strongly urge both sides to exercise restraint, refrain from provocative acts, and immediately take all necessary steps to reduce tensions and avoid further conflict,” she said. “The loss of life, displacement of civilians, and damage to property is regrettable.”
The Foreign Ministry issued a note to the Thai Embassy protesting what it called “further violation of Cambodian territorial integrity by Thailand’s armed forces” in the area of Ta Moan and Ta Krabei temples.
On Monday afternoon two military aircraft violated airspace over the area of two temples, and later Thai forces fired six 155mm shells in the populated Kokmon commune 22 km inside Cambodia, according to the statement.
The actions “not only go against all relevant legal instruments but also the efforts to seek a peaceful settlement to Cambodia-Thailand border problem.”
(Additional reporting by Tim Sturrock and Van Roeun in Phnom Penh.)