Security Council reps gather in Phnom Penh; Official downplays temple damage report
choam ksan district, Preah Vihear province – With a lull of only a few hours, Cambodian and Thai armed forces resumed deadly battles before dawn at Preah Vihear temple yesterday after the Thai side tried to retrieve their dead from the battlefield, troops stationed here said.
Following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s late-night appeal on Sunday to the UN Security Council, representatives of the council’s five permanent members, as well as Germany and India, gathered yesterday at the Foreign Ministry in Phnom Penh.
According to unofficial reports from a frontline officer, three Thai soldiers were killed during two short firefights, the first of which broke out at 4:30 am. The gunfire marked the fourth straight day that clashes have taken place near Preah Vihear temple. The reports of Thai casualties could not be independently verified.
Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Chhum Sucheat said yesterday afternoon that it was not possible to determine the number of casualties on either side. Late yesterday, he said troops remained on standby near the temple, ready to defend Cambodian territory.
“Our troops are still strong…. We were guarding against the thief coming to our side, and we repelled them,” he said of yesterday’s fighting.
But, emerging from a meeting with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa in Phnom Penh yesterday, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said Monday’s single day of fighting had claimed 50 more Cambodian military casualties.
“Today, five Cambodians were killed and 45 wounded,” he said, adding that he had no information on civilian deaths and injuries.
Earlier in the day, Mr Namhong held separate meetings with groups of ambassadors and told reporters that Thai forces were using cluster munitions.
“I was informed recently that Thailand is using cluster munitions…which nations around the world prohibit,” he said.
Despite championing the creation of a global cluster munitions ban for years, Cambodia has itself refused to sign on to the UN-sponsored convention, which bans the use, stockpiling and transfer of the weapons. Officials have cited Thailand’s own decision not the sign on for Cambodia’s holding out.
Thai officials were unavailable.
The officer at the front line near Preah Vihear temple, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the fighting started up at west of Preah Vihear temple at Ta Sim at about 4:30 am, four hours after both sides stopped shelling each other Sunday night.
The officer said Cambodian troops had retaliated after Thai troops used small arms fire to clear the way to their dead colleagues near the front line. He said one Thai soldier was killed during the initial fight, which lasted about 10 minutes. Roughly an hour later, two more Thai troops were killed as they attempted to retrieve their soldiers’ bodies for a second time, he said.
“During the two fights this morning, we did not respond back with our artillery or heavy weapons. The battle was just among infantry,” the officer said.
At about midday, troops in Sra’em village, about 20 km from Preah Vihear temple, said they had heard that Thailand would resume firing at 3 pm. Cambodian BM-40 rocket launchers were visible south of the village, pointed north toward Thailand.
Reporters and civilians were warned to leave the area immediately for fear that Thai shelling could reach the small town. Soldiers in the village also told reporters they were carrying garlic in the belief it could offer protection against unknown gasses allegedly released by Thai artillery rounds.
The Council of Ministers on Sunday evening said Thai munitions had released an unidentified gas on impact. Spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that soldiers reported dizziness and tearing on contact and that the Cambodian Mine Action Center had been sent to investigate.
By late yesterday, no more fighting had taken place near the temple.
Hang Soth, secretary-general of the Preah Vihear Authority, denied yesterday’s government reports that one of the walls at Preah Vihear temple had collapsed because of Thai shelling.
“There is no collapse at the temple, but it has been seriously damaged by the mortar and shrapnel,” Mr Soth said. “The shelling was heavy and on a large scale. It shook the temple, and the mountain as well.”
Lieutenant Colonel Chhay Mao, a deputy commander for logistics in an RCAF border unit who is based near the front line at the temple’s fourth “gopuras,” or stairway entrance, said Sunday night’s fighting ceased at 12:25 am yesterday.
Lt Col Mao said the damage inflicted to the Preah Vihear temple during the five-hour firefight was severe.
“The mortar shelling landed down by the temple and seriously damaged the fourth temple’s wall,” he said.
“The Buddhist temple [Wat keo siri svara] was also seriously damaged, but there is no information about any injuries to the monks.”
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin and Zsombor Peter in Phnom Penh)