Thai and Cambodian troops clashed Friday in two battles at Preah Vihear Temple, including an hour-long afternoon engagement and another, shorter one in the morning during which both sides traded fierce fire from automatic weapons and rockets, marking the most serious escalation in hostilities in the nearly nine-month border dispute.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kan-harith claimed that four Thai soldiers were killed and 10 were cap-tured, while no Cambodian troops were either killed or injured.
The first firefight erupted at 7 am after Thai soldiers entered Veal Intry, or Eagle Field, where a Thai soldier had lost his leg in a land mine explosion Thursday, Khieu Kanharith said. Both countries claim Veal Intry, which is located about 2 km from the 11th-century temple, as their territory.
After the fighting died down, regional commanders from both sides met in the area at 10:30 am to discuss the clash, but the Thai commanders who attended the talks were followed by Thai troops, which raised tensions further, Khieu Kanharith said.
“They entered [Cambodian territory],” Khieu Kanharith said. “We said ‘don’t come in,’ but they came in. They caused the incident first,” he said, adding that he didn’t know who fired first. Four Thais died in the second fight, which broke out around 2 pm, he added.
Chea Dara, RCAF deputy commander in chief, said by telephone from Preah Vihear that it was too early to confirm the exact number of dead and injured am-ong Thai forces. He accused the Thais of provoking the clash.
“They keep moving into Cam-bodian territory, and then they come to meet us and say ‘sorry, sorry,” he said. “Say ‘sorry,’ but keep moving deeper and deeper and then get beaten by our clubs,” he added.
A news release on the Thai For-eign Ministry website addressed only the first clash Friday morning. Thai soldiers were on Thai soil investigating whether the landmine that exploded Thursday was laid recently when the soldiers were confronted by 20 Cambo-dian troops, the ministry said.
“After talks between the two sides failed, the Cambodian side started to walk away and turned back to open fire at Thai troops with rifles and RPG rockets, forcing the Thai side to fire back in self defense,” the release said.
A Reuters report quoted Thai Second Army commander Wiboonsak Neepan as saying that rocket propelled grenades fired by Cambodians killed one Thai soldier.
Kheim Kheang, a Cambodian soldier who engaged in both firefights, said that Thai soldiers initiated the first five-minute firefight by firing M-16 assault rifles and Cambodian troops returned fire with rocket launchers.
“We used B-60s and DK-80s during the fighting. When we moved closer to their front line, they just ran away,” he said.
The heaviest fighting took place at Veal Intry and Phnom Trop mountain west of the temple, he said.
Chea Morn, RCAF commander of Military Region 4, said that a Thai general called him after the second firefight to tell him that one Thai soldier died and another was injured in the fighting.
“There is no death on our side but the market [at the temple’s entrance steps] was burned down during the fighting,” he said, referring to the ramshackle and sprawling Cambodian market that the Thais have long demanded be removed.
Keo Neang, a villager and vendor at the market, said the fire destroyed all of her stock.
“All of my clothes have completely burned,” she said. “Thai soldier shelled this market with the intention of destroying the shelter of civilians.”
She said that villagers living near the temple were evacuated to Sa’em town 30 km away from the temple.
The first Thai incursion at the temple followed after Preah Vihear was declared a World Heritage Site in July. Since then tensions have ebbed and flowed.
On Oct 15 two RCAF soldiers were killed in an hour-long firefight near the temple. The soldiers were killed near a pagoda close to the temple and some fighting occurred at Veal Intry.
Later on Oct 24 Hun Sen and Thailand’s former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat agreed to avoid violent conflict.
Meetings over the last few months have not settled the matter.
Last week Cambodian authorities accused the Thais of sending 100 troops into Cambodian territory.
And as recently as this week Hun Sen has warned of battle if Thais encroach on land claimed by Cambodia.
This most recent fight comes less a week before Hun Sen is scheduled to meet with his Thai counterpart Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in Bangkok. A joint border committee, which will include Thai and Cambodian officials, is scheduled to meet on Monday and Tuesday at the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh.