In a reprisal of a simmering border row, Thai and Cambodian troops exchanged gunfire Wednesday near a hilltop Hindu temple whose disputed ownership prompted a military standoff in July. The clash is a setback for efforts to negotiate a settlement to the longstanding territorial claims, but seems unlikely to spark a wider conflict.
Cambodia said two of its soldiers had died in the fighting, while Thailand said it had five men injured. Cambodia also said it had captured 10 Thai soldiers during the clash, which erupted Wednesday afternoon, one day after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a strongly worded ultimatum for Thailand to pull back troops from the disputed area.
However, Thai and Cambodian government officials said publicly Wednesday that the dispute can be settled peacefully through talks. A Thai intelligence official said a joint military border committee would be convened Thursday in a bid to calm tensions. Similar measures were used after troops flooded the area in July when anger flared in Thailand over the UN's listing of Preah Vihear temple as a Cambodian heritage site.
Tensions rise in testy relationship
But in a sign of the testy relationship between the two neighboring countries, Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat urged Thai nationals to immediately leave Cambodia. Military fighter jets and transport planes are already on standby for evacuations.
"Our forces are on alert and ready to support the Army's possible operations on the border," Thai Air Force official Group Capt. Montol Satchukorn told the Associated Press. "These are just precautionary measures. It's not that we are going to war."
In 2003, a Cambodian mob torched the Thai Embassy in the capital, Phnom Penh, after a Thai actress was quoted as saying that Angkor Wat, another temple in Cambodia, belonged to Thailand. The remark caused a nationalist uproar that was exploited by politicians in Cambodia.
Both sides accuse the other of shooting first Wednesday along the border, which has never been properly demarcated and is still littered with land mines from Cambodia's civil war. The Thai intelligence official described a brief firefight lasting several minutes. Cambodian media reported an hour-long battle involving a Thai helicopter.
With hundreds of troops deployed in the area and no clear boundaries, accidents can happen, says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia Pacific, a security consultancy in Bangkok. "I don't think this was a strategic or well-planned attack. They just started firing at each other," he says.
Problems within Thai borders
The latest tensions come at an awkward moment for Thailand. Its government is weakened by a street protest movement that has used nationalism to rile Thais unhappy with their political leaders. Last week, a protester died and hundreds were injured after a police assault outside the Parliament sparked violent resistance.
Thai nationalists still rue a 1962 ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague that gave Preah Vihear to Cambodia, a former French colony. The court didn't determine the status of the surrounding Thai-administered area, now claimed by both sides. Some Thais fear UNESCO's listing of Preah Vihear will strengthen Cambodia's claim over overlapping territory (4.6 sq. km).
After a negotiated troop drawdown in August, tensions appeared to be subsiding. But earlier this month, two Thai soldiers were injured in a clash near the disputed temple. Thailand also accused Cambodia of an armed incursion on another border temple, the Bangkok Post reported.
Wednesday's incident may stoke concerns that Cambodia is taking advantage of Thailand's political crisis and its divisions in the military command in Bangkok. Some protest leaders have called for the military to side with them, two years after a bloodless military coup ended a similar period of political conflict.