Heavy fighting between troops massed along Oddar Meanchey province’s border with Thailand erupted for the third straight day yesterday, displacing hundreds more civilians on either side but leaving the official death toll at 11.
The weekend’s fighting elicited new expressions of concern from the UN Secretariat and threw fresh doubt on Asean’s already troubled mediation of a conflict that is now almost three years old.
The Defense Ministry yesterday accused Thailand of launching an unprovoked barrage of rocket fire at 9:40 am that included “thousands of artillery rounds” into Banteay Ampil district, hundreds of them into civilian settlements. It said an attempt by Thai troops to take Ta Moan temple, where the fighting erupted on Friday, was repelled.
It also accused Thailand of firing 105mm rockets loaded with unspecified “poisonous gas,” a claim the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry has denied.
Both sides accuse the other of starting the latest clash, which broke out Friday morning around Ta Moan and Ta Krabei temples, about 150 km west of the scene of deadly border fighting in February. Thailand has counted five dead soldiers on its side and Cambodia, six.
The Defense Ministry reported no new casualties yesterday despite the heavy shelling.
RCAF Brigadier General Dy Pen, who heads Thai-Cambodian border affairs at the ministry, said the shelling yesterday, which ended just after 1 pm, struck Kokmon commune hardest.
“They fired the shells, the 155mm shells, at Kokmon commune,” he said. “The villagers are fine, but they are terrified and continue to evacuate the area.”
Local staff for the human rights group Adhoc said Thai rocket fire had razed at least six houses and a school in Kok Khpos commune’s Bos Thom village.
“The Thais just fired shells all over the place, and some hit villagers’ houses,” said provincial governor Pich Sokhin. “It is lucky they were evacuated on time.”
He said makeshift shelters for the nearly 10,000 civilians who have thus far fled the fighting had been set up in Samraong City, about 30 km from the border.
“Over the three days, about 2,560 families, or 9,800 people, have been removed from the danger zone,” said Nhim Vanda, vice president of the National Disaster Management Committee. “They stay in pagodas, school grounds, parks, removable shelters and villagers’ homes.”
He said conditions were holding for now.
“Now, there are no major problems for the evacuees, but there could be sanitation problems if this lasts long,” he said.
Later in the day, the Defense Ministry again accused Thailand of firing “toxic gas” in “a barbaric act of aggression.” It called Thailand’s claims that Cambodia had fired truck-mounted BM-21 rockets “exaggerated.”
Thailand accused Cambodia of firing rockets at two Thai villages and a hospital in Surin province and forcing 16,000 of its own citizens to flee.
From New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged restraint from both sides.
According to a statement from his office Saturday, Mr Ban “called on both sides to exercise maximum restraint” and “take immediate measures for an effective and verifiable cease-fire.”
During February’s fighting around Preah Vihear temple, Prime Minister Hun Sen personally appealed to the UN Security Council for UN peacekeepers to set up a buffer zone near the 11th-century World Heritage Site.
At a meeting at its New York headquarters later that month, the council instead referred mediation efforts to Asean. Since then, Indonesia, as the current chair of the regional body, has presided over labored negotiations that have thus far yielded little.
Though both sides in principle agreed to host Indonesian observers on either side to monitor their unofficial cease-fire, their arrival has been held up by Thailand’s refusal to let them into the disputed area itself.
Yesterday, however, Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was to travel to Cambodia today and Thailand on Tuesday to see both sides sign Jakarta’s terms for the observers, clearing the way for their arrival.
Mr Kuong said he did not know when exactly the observers would arrive. But the locations Cambodia says it has agreed to seem to place them inside the disputed area, something to which Bangkok is opposed.
As for the border fighting in Oddar Meanchey, Mr Kuong said Cambodia would not immediately be seeking the UN Security Council’s help as it did in February during fighting around Preah Vihear temple.
“Right now, not yet,” he said. “We don’t know the next step.”
Last month, again under Indonesia’s eye in Jakarta, Thai and Cambodian officials reconvened the Joint Boundary Committee for the first time in more than two years in hopes of reigniting border demarcation talks. Though they agreed to send a joint survey team to the site of this week’s fighting, Thailand snubbed military-to-military talks intended to discuss security issues, insisting on holding them in Cambodia or Thailand.
On Saturday, Thailand said it would call for those security talks to resume “at the earliest opportunity.”