Thai, Cambodian troops clash in disputed border region

At least three soldiers were killed during gunfights near a 900-year-old temple, whose ownership has been contested by both sides.

Thai soldiers stand guard Friday in a disputed border area near the Preah Vihear temple. The clashes between Cambodian troops and Thai soldiers come days before a meeting on the border dispute.

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At least three people were killed in a firefight between Cambodian and Thai troops Friday in the latest of a recent series of clashes along the disputed Thai-Cambodian border. The skirmish comes days before the two sides were set to discuss the issue at a regional summit.

Agence France-Presse reports that two Cambodian soldiers and one Thai soldier died during a number of skirmishes Friday.

"We are fighting with each other, it is serious gunfire. Two of our soldiers have been killed," Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said. "The gunfire is continuing in at least two areas," he added....
Cambodian and Thai authorities confirmed heavy gunfire had broken out at 2:00 pm (0700 GMT) in a number of spots near the border, which has never been fully demarcated due to landmines left after decades of war in Cambodia.
"We have occupied many areas now. The gunfire ended after about 35 minutes of fighting. We have won the fight now," Cambodian commander Bun Thean told AFP.

Bloomberg reports that the fighting has now stopped and that the two sides are discussing the situation, according to Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat.

"The army chiefs are now talking," Tharit said. "We asked for a ceasefire and do not want to use force."
Cambodian and Thai troops engaged in "large-scale fighting" today, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said by phone. Two Thai soldiers were killed and six wounded, he said. Tharit denied the claim and said Thailand had suffered no deaths or injuries.

The battles took place around the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, the ownership of which has been contested by Thailand and Cambodia. Although the International Court of Justice at the Hague ruled in 1962 that the temple was within Cambodia's territory, the court did not address the ownership of the surrounding land, which both nations have claimed.  As a result, the temple has remained a flashpoint. In July 2008, both countries engaged in a troop buildup and saber-rattling over the temple, after UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage Site for Cambodia, The Christian Science Monitor reported.  Several soldiers were killed in a subsequent skirmish near Preah Vihear in October.

Friday's gun battles come a day after a Thai soldier lost a leg to a land mine in a forest near Preah Vihear, reports The Phnom Penh Post. The Post writes that the soldier had been on patrol when he stepped on the mine, which had probably been placed there years before, according to a Cambodian military official.

Yim Phim, commander of Brigade 8, said the Cambodian troops "don't dare walk" in the area where the Thai soldier was wounded.
"Mines were laid there during the fighting in the 1980s and 1990s," he said, referring to clashes between government troops and resistance fighters.

Bloomberg notes, however, that Mr. Charungvat said that Thai officers believe that the mine had recently been planted.

The BBC reports that Friday's battles seem to have been sparked during a subsequent visit by a Thai patrol to the site where the Thai soldier was injured Thursday.

"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-defence," said a statement from Thailand's foreign ministry.
"It was an accident, a misunderstanding among officials on the ground, which is common when you are closely positioned," said Thai Defense Minister Pravit Wongsuwan.
However, the Cambodian foreign ministry called it an "intended aggressive invasion by the Thai military", and said a letter of protest would be sent to Thailand.

The Associated Press reports that a Cambodian soldier said they opened fire only after some 60 Thai soldiers entered Cambodian territory, sparking a gun battle that lasted about 10 minutes. The AP adds that neither side reported any casualties in the first round of fighting.

The BBC notes that the battles come just days before representatives from Thailand and Cambodia were scheduled to discuss the issue peacefully. The Cambodia-Thailand Joint Border Committee was set to begin three days of talks on Sunday, in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap. Bloomberg adds that leaders of the two countries are scheduled to meet during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit next week, and that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is due to visit Cambodia later in April.

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