Tensions erupt as Thailand, Cambodia exchange gunfire at disputed border temple

Clashes near a temple on the Thailand-Cambodia border wounded at least two Thai troops today. Each nation claims land around the World Heritage Site.

By , Correspondent

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    General view of the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, a world heritage site, during sunrise in Preah Vihear province, 337 miles north of Phnom Penh in this March 13, 2009 file photo. Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged gunfire in a two-hour border clash on Friday, the latest in an ancient feud over land surrounding the temple.
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Cambodia and Thailand exchanged gunfire today on their contested border after months of escalating rhetoric boiled over. The disputed patch of land – just 1.8 square miles – surrounds a 900-year-old Khmer temple recently designated a World Heritage Site, although in the past three years it has become less of a tourist destination than a hot plate for nationalist sentiments.

Witnesses said Thai troops at 3:10 pm local time attacked a nearby Buddhist pagoda claimed by Cambodia, according to the BBC. Cambodia's government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith told the Associated Press that Cambodian troops fired warning shots to stop Thai troops from crossing into the territory and that Thai soldiers returned with fire. Two or three Thai soldiers were wounded in the Friday afternoon exchange, a Thai military source told the Bangkok Post.

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Reuters reported that Thailand's Army chief says the shoot-out was a "misunderstanding" and military officials were in contact.

Troops and armored vehicles have clustered on the border throughout the week, according to the BBC.

Thailand asked residents in villages near the border to find shelter or leave, the Agence France-Presse reports.

The firefight followed a Friday morning meeting between Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya and his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong, in which the two agreed to not let the dispute of placing national flags near the Preah Vihear temple intensify, according to the Thai News Agency:

Mr Kasit said they have also agreed not to exaggerate the dispute over the flags at the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda and not to incite their people into misunderstandings or causing tensions.

Thailand earlier demanded that Cambodia remove both the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda and the Cambodian flag flying over the pagoda gate, while reasserting that the pagoda is on Thai territory. Thai troops also erected a Thai national flag in the disputed area in response.

Tensions have ratcheted since 2008, when the Cambodia successfully lobbied for Unesco to designate Preah Vihear temple a World Heritage Site. Thailand opposed the move, claiming sovereignty over land surrounding the temple. The border dispute dates back decades, with the International Court of Justice in 1962 awarding the temple to Cambodia, although the three following decades of civil war in Cambodia left the border largely unmarked and undeveloped.

Tensions escalated once again in December, when Cambodian forces arrested seven Thai nationals elsewhere along the disputed border. Five have been released, but well-known "Yellow Shirt" activist Veera Somkwamkid and his secretary were last week handed long jail sentences for espionage.

The BBC notes that Mr. Veera and the Yellow Shirts have used the crumbling temple as a way to play politics and attack the Thai government.

Veera is the leader of Thailand Patriot Network, a splinter group of the "yellow-shirt" People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement which shut down Bangkok's airports in 2008 in a bid to force the previous government of allies of ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra to step down.

The PAD has made nationalism, and in particular border disputes with Cambodia, a key part of its political platform.... PAD activists joined the Patriot Network in staging protests in Bangkok calling for the pair's release and demanding that the government take a hard line with Cambodia.

Nationalist Yellow Shirt activists protested the Thai government this week against the imprisonment and the Thai handling of the border, reported Agence France-Presse. They plan larger rallies for Saturday.

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