Cambodian refugee numbers top 45,000
samraong city, Oddar Meanchey province – Fresh border fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops Thursday night brought a quick end to a cease-fire agreement reached only hours earlier, the Defense Ministry confirmed yesterday, extending the latest round of clashes into its eighth straight day.
Thai and Cambodian forces agreed on Thursday to hold their fire and refrain from moving troop positions, after deadly fighting broke out over contested land around Ta Moan and Ta Krabei temples on April 22.
“The spokesman deeply regrets and is very disappointed with the Thai troop redeployments and Thai renewed artillery shelling” at RCAF forces posted around Ta Krabei temple, the Defense Ministry said yesterday. “The artillery shelling started at 20:30 on 28 April.”
“They fired at us with mortars,” Major General Siek Socheat, RCAF deputy commander for joint battlefield units, said yesterday, adding that Cambodian forces only fired back in “self defense.”
Thai media said the fighting killed one Thai soldier and injured four.
But Maj Gen Socheat said his colonels met with their Thai counterparts at the O’Smach commune border checkpoint at around noon to quickly renew the cease-fire.
“The result is an end to fighting. Cambodia will not fire, and Thailand will not fire either,” he said. “Second, forces are prohibited from moving positions. Third, every two days, frontline commanders must conduct a meeting, either face-to-face or by telephone.”
These are the same terms the two sides negotiated Thursday, minus the regular meetings.
Maj Gen Socheat also denied Thai media reports claiming that the number of Cambodian soldiers killed had jumped from six to eight.
Army deputy commander Lieutenant General Chhin Chanpor, in charge of joint units on the battlefield, downplayed the night’s fighting.
“It was too small to talk about,” he said yesterday. “They [Thailand] always violate like that.”
Major General Chea Morn, commander of RCAF Region 4, who led Thursday’s ceasefire negotiations, said he spoke with his Thai counterparts about the breach at yesterday’s talks in O’Smach.
“They said their troops saw Cambodian soldiers walking along their front lines and it made them scared. That’s why they opened fire,” he said, claiming that Cambodian soldiers had held their fire.
Officials in Bangkok also downplayed the latest fighting, Thai media reported yesterday, insisting the ceasefire had not been breached because the clashes involved only small weapons fire.
“If the clash expands with heavy weapons, that means the agreement is no longer valid,” Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said, according to the Bangkok Post.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, lead researcher for political and strategic affairs at the Asean Studies Center, expressed doubts that Thailand would make peace with Cambodia given that fighting would allow the military to delay elections, preventing Thaksin Shinawatra supporters from taking power, and because of the significance of the two temples.
“Thailand in particular fears that the loss of these two temples would be too devastating since Thailand has already “lost” the Preah Vihear,” he said.
According to a statement from the Foreign Affairs Ministery, the government yesterday submitted a request to the International Court of Justice to interpret the court’s 1962 judgment. The statement said the request was prompted by the recent aggression.
Local military commanders and civilians say Thai forces started shelling Thursday night and into yesterday morning.
“I heard about the ceasefire,” said Lour Lath, who lives about 25 km from the border. “But early this morning I heard the shells again.”
Mr Lath knows the sound well.
A mortar shell blew a hole through his fence Thursday morning, sending a spray of shrapnel toward his stilted home.
Yesterday, the late morning light streamed in through a dozen jagged holes the shrapnel ripped through the wooden walls. One piece tore a meter-long gash trough the tin roof. Broken glass littered the floor.
As the shells approached, Mr Lath recalled, he sent his wife and children to the nearest bunker. He stayed beneath the house, but escaped injury.
With one ceasefire broken, he said locals-even the few left-were still leaving. His own family left after Thursday’s shelling for one of the 13 refugee camps that now ring Samraong City.
“No one dares to come back,” he said. “Everyone is terrified. People are leaving without taking anything, not even rice.”
Ross Sovann, deputy secretary-general of the National Disaster Management Committee, said more than 45,000 Cambodians had been displaced by the fighting as of yesterday.
“Most of the people have been evacuated,” he said. “Even though there is more fighting, I don’t think there will be much more than this.”
Even if the numbers do not climb much, some of the refugee camps are already stretched past their limits.
About 70 refugees from Pong Ro pagoda, 20 km south of Samraong City, were brought to Oddar Meanchey Referral Hospital Thursday night suffering from headaches and vomiting.
“First we thought they were poisoned by the food or water, but we found out it was because of the environment, the hot weather and overcrowding,” said Dr Keo Sdoeung, the hospital’s deputy director.
But NGOs and aid agencies touring the camps say they are running short of clean water.
Mr Sovann said authorities had already started digging new wells at some of the camps to ease the pressure.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana and Tim Sturrock in Phnom Penh)