Chafed in Battle, Temple Shows Fresh Scars

Unesco announces mission to assess damage

preah vihear temple – A prize of world patrimony, the Preah Vi­hear temple yesterday exhibited fresh battle scars as troops re­mained on high alert following heavy artillery exchanges between Cambodian and Thai forces over the weekend.

Unesco responded yesterday to the deadly feud, announcing the dispatch of a mission to assess the damage. The Foreign Ministry also denied yesterday that Cambodian troops had ever been at the temple even as reporters were interviewing them there.

During a visit to the temple yesterday, large shards of the 11th-century temple’s stonework appeared chip­ped away by shrapnel thrown from Thai rockets that landed in and around its five levels during a heavy battle on Sunday night.

Small craters surrounding the temple’s wall showed a number of near misses.

Even a Unesco flag became a victim Sunday, torn down by a rocket from its position next to the Cam­bodian flag at the foot of the temple, according to troops stationed here, who added that the national flag had also been ripped by bullets.

Another rocket, apparently Thai, directly struck the temple’s bottom, or fifth, level, throwing shrapnel into its walls and pillars.

Soldiers said yesterday that a civilian who often photographed tourists at the temple had died in the rocket’s blast, and they left instant noodle packages as an offering.

At the fourth level, a trail of blood stretched to a larger pool that stained the temple floor.

One soldier stationed under a tree at the bottom of the temple’s stairs said a fellow soldier had died there Sunday night after being struck by shrapnel from a Thai shell.

Despite the obvious damage to the temple’s stonework, no major structural damage was visible yesterday, despite previous government reporting that a wing had collapsed.

A few monks remained inside the grounds at the Wat Keo Sikha Kiri Svara yesterday, after hiding out in a bunker during the worst of the fighting.

The Cambodian flag, which Thailand demanded be taken down last week, still flew at the entrance, but the damage inflicted upon the pagoda’s buildings during the weekend’s fighting was severe.

Bullets ripped dozens of holes through the walls of the pagoda, a water storage tank and even an offering bowl in front of a shrine inside one of the buildings.

A Buddha statue inside one building was damaged by shrapnel, while an unexploded rocket remained lodged underground about 20 meters inside the temple’s entrance.

Several monks were at the temple yesterday, alongside at least 10 Cambodian soldiers. About 500 meters across the gully to the north, Thai military positions were visible.

Nineteen-year-old monk Lon Sengly, who hid in the temple’s bunker for three days after fighting between Cambodian and Thai troops started Friday, said he was scared that the shelling would continue.

“The shells landed 5 or 6-meters away from where we were hiding. The ground was shaking. The bunker was shaking,” he said.

The areas immediately surrounding the temple were not the only ones affected during Sunday night’s battle. About 10 km away, small craters were visible along the paved main road leading to the temple, close to Cambodian military bases.

After four consecutive days of fighting, General Hing Bunheang, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief, said late yesterday afternoon that the situation at the front line had remained quiet.

“At this hour, the situation is good. There is no change,” Gen Bunheang said. “On our side, we keep quiet, but stay on high alert. This is the order from the prime minister.”

Major General Srey Doek, 3rd Division commander, confirmed there was no change on the Cambodian side of the front but said there was movement on the Thai side.

“On the Thai side, there is a build up of around 400 to 500 more troops at the front line near the temple today,” Maj Gen Doek said.

Maj Gen Doek confirmed the death of a civilian photographer at the temple on Sunday but could not provide any more details on troop casualties.

Soldiers on the ground near yesterday said a tense peace had broken out at the border but that they would stay on high alert until further notice.

“Today, we stay alert at all times, but the situation does seem more normal,” said Major Sam San from his position 500 meters behind the front line near the temple.

Maj San said no more Cambodian troops had been added to forces at the mountain since fighting broke out and that those at the front line had held strong.

“Cambodia’s front line has not moved, but on the Thai side they have moved back,” he said.

At four camps in Koulen district for those fleeing the fighting, conditions became cramped as more families arrived from near the border.

Chek Heng, chairperson of the Cambodian Red Cross Preah Vihear branch, said there were no major concerns for the health of the displaced and no disease outbreaks had been reported.

Ms Heng said the number of fleeing families increased yesterday from 2,039 to 2,980, as representatives of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife Bun Rany, the Red Cross president, delivered truckloads of supplies to the evacuation camps.

“The reason the number has increased is because yesterday and the day before they were unable to come here because they were hiding in water pipes near their homes,” she said.

The Foreign Ministry yesterday categorically denied reported Thai military accusations that RCAF had fired artillery from the temple.

In a statement, however, ministry spokesman Koy Kuong also said there “has never been and never will be Cambodian soldiers at the temple of Preah Vihear. This has always been a place for worship and tourism.”

Parties to the 1954 Hague convention on protecting cultural property, which Cambodia ratified in 1962, are required to avoid any use of the property “likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict.”

Troops have been stationed at the border since 2008, and Mr Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit uses the temple in its insignia.

Mr Kuong stood by his statement yesterday. “I don’t know exactly but as far as I know, no presence of soldiers a the temple,” he said, referring further questions to the military.

(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison in Phnom Penh)

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