Hun Sen alerts UN Security Council; Indonesian foreign minister to arrive
choam ksan district, Preah Vihear province – A wing of the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple collapsed here yesterday evening as nighttime combat with Thai forces broke a fleeting truce and began a third straight day of border clashes, the government announced.
In a letter sent yesterday to the Brazilian presidency of the UN Security Council, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for a urgent meeting “to stop Thailand’s aggression.”
The Council of Ministers said frontline RCAF officers claimed the damage to the World Heritage Site was from Thai fire. This could not be independently verified.
Fresh reports of battle multiplied as darkness fell, with fighting reported in at least four locations along the border.
“We are advancing in the Chak Chreng battlefield,” General Chea Dara, the RCAF tactical director, said of a battle occurring at the foot of Preah Vihear temple as he spoke. The Cambodian side had refused a Thai request for negotiations, he said.
Colonel Kan Lorn, deputy commander, 9th Battalion, 3rd Division, said yesterday evening that Thai troops had crossed into Cambodia at about 6:30 pm at the foot of the temple.
“Thai troops moved in and confronted us at Phnom Trop and Chak Chreng,” he said. “We are now exchanging fire.”
Later in the evening, Brigadier General Som Bopharath said fighting had spread to a location 10 km east of Preah Vihear temple, and another RCAF officer said at least one Cambodian soldier had died.
The foreign minister of Indonesia, Asean’s current president, is due to arrive in Phnom Penh for talks today, three days after Cambodia notified the UN Security Council of the renewed fighting.
Saying the temple conflict was now a threat to regional stability, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai foreign minister, appeared Saturday to propose mediation by the regional body, according to media reports. The US on Friday called on both sides to show “maximum restraint.”
Yesterday’s fighting followed an exchange of artillery and small arms fire that broke out on Friday, leaving at least two Cambodian soldiers dead and 20 more injured.
By Saturday morning, another two were injured, troops at an intelligence post near Preah Vihear temple said Saturday.
The ground in and around the 11th-century temple complex was blackened on Saturday afternoon, still smoking from fires started by mortar rounds. Small craters from the shelling pockmarked the ground north of the temple.
In an interview on Saturday, Col Lorn said Thai troops had entered Cambodian soil at about 5:45 am that day to retrieve Thai dead left since Friday.
He said the Thais opened fire to clear a path, causing the Cambodians to fire in self-defense and that three Thai soldiers were killed and one was captured, while two Cambodian troops received minor injuries from shrapnel. The report could not be independently verified.
The captured Thai soldier was immediately flown to Phnom Penh in a helicopter, Col Lorn added.
General Hing Bunheang, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief and chief of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, said yesterday that the captured soldier was being held at an unspecified location in Phnom Penh and would be handed over to the Foreign Ministry.
“He was sent to Phnom Penh on [Saturday], but I do not know the location of where he is being kept because it a matter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Gen Bunheang said.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday that he had no information about the captured soldier. Koy Kuong, the ministry spokesman, also said Indonesian Foreign Minister RM Marty M Natalegawa was to arrive in Phnom Penh today to discuss the situation with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
On the heels of a meeting on Saturday, Thai and Cambodian generals met yesterday at the bottom of the staircase to Preah Vihear temple to discuss ways to ease the tension at the border.
At both meetings, the Thais agreed to stop bulldozing a road to the front line, while both sides reached an agreement to stop mobilizing troops, to cease-fire and to allow the Joint Border Commission to continue its work peacefully demarcating the border, according to Major General Srey Doek, the RCAF 3rd Division commander.
Troops at an intelligence post near the front line said that about 50 shells landed in the vicinity during Friday’s fighting, while an additional 10 landed Saturday morning. They said both 105 mm and 155 mm shells had been used by Thailand’s artillery.
“Usually, [the Thai troops] just come, and we push them back. Yesterday, they had the intention to fight. We do not want the dispute, but they do not listen,” said Private Praing Thoeun of the 3rd Division.
“We expect we might fight again, but we do not know.”
At the rear of the temple complex, Gen Dara, the RCAF tactical director, spoke in an interview on Saturday of what he called Thailand’s “intentional” aggression.
“Before Friday, the Thai soldiers built up with artillery and tanks for about 12 days. On Friday, they sent about 400 troops to a location where both sides have agreed to keep troops away. Their intention of sending troops is to invade Cambodian soil.”
“On Friday, there was a lot of shelling into the temple, destroying some parts. There were about 30 Cambodian and foreign tourists here at that time, and they had to hide behind the temple’s walls. They attacked to destroy the temple, frighten tourists and expel our troops from the temple area,” he said.
Thailand on Saturday denied accusations that it had been the aggressor and also invoked its right of self-defense. In a statement, the Thai Foreign Ministry said Cambodian troops had shot first, opening fire on two Thai military installations with small arms.
“In between the two incidents, several artillery shells were also fired by Cambodian troops into Phum Srol village in Si Saket province […] around five km from the border,” the statement said.
The statement said 3,000 Thai villagers had been removed from the surrounding area and that Cambodian fire had killed one Thai civilian, injured six Thai troops and damaged private property.
“The attack […] constitutes an act of aggression and a clear violation of Thailand’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said.
A Thai government spokesman said yesterday that Thailand preferred bilateral negotiation over mediation by Asean.
“We think this is a matter for the two countries to settle peacefully,” he said.
Earlier, at about 2 pm Saturday, scores of villagers could be seen walking away from their homes in Kantuot district’s Sra’em village toward the provincial capital in Choam Ksan district, after being told by military officials to vacate the area. More than 2,000 in total were evacuated by Saturday’s end, said Chhim Samras, a medical worker in Choam Ksan.
Sok Hai, the district governor, said five Cambodians from Kantuot commune’s Svay Chrum village were killed late Sunday when an unexploded Thai shell they were attempting to dislodge detonated.
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin and Zsombor Peter)