Friday, April 3, 2009

Cambodia, Thai border clash leaves two dead

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Cambodian and Thai troops fought heavy gunbattles on their disputed border as months of tensions boiled over, leaving two soldiers dead just days before a key regional summit.

Soldiers traded rocket, machinegun and mortar fire near an 11th-century Khmer temple on the frontier, following a brief exchange of shots earlier in the day, officials from both sides said.

The same area was the scene of several clashes last year after the Preah Vihear temple was granted United Nations world heritage status, with four soldiers killed in a battle in October.

"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.

A Cambodian soldier posted at the border, Yeim Kheang, told AFP by telephone that a Cambodian market at the gateway to the temple had been badly burned during the fighting.

"We used heavy weapons including rockets, machineguns and mortars. In general, we used every weapon given to us. Many Thai soldiers ran away, leaving their weapons behind during the fight," Yeim Kheang said.

Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat also confirmed the clash had taken place but said it ended with no Thai casualties.

Tensions had been high since an exchange of shots early in the morning after Cambodian soldiers went to investigate the area where a Thai soldier stepped on a landmine a day earlier and lost his leg.

"The brief clash happened at 7:10am when Cambodian troops came to investigate the spot where that Thai soldier stepped on a landmine yesterday," Seni Chittakasem, governor of Si Sa Ket province in Thailand said.

He said there was no report of loss of life on the Thai side in the earlier fighting, adding that the trouble flared one kilometre (around half a mile) into disputed territory.

Thailand's Tharit blamed the other side for the earlier clash.

"We had to retaliate because Cambodians opened fire at Thai soldiers first. We want to reiterate that this area is our territory," Tharit told AFP.

The landmine incident a day earlier had already put Cambodian troops on "high alert" they said, two days after their premier Hun Sen warned Thailand that it would face fighting if its troops crossed their disputed frontier.

Thailand denies claims that about 100 of its troops went over the frontier a week ago.

Tensions first flared along the border in July last year over the granting of UN heritage to the temple on the border.

Subsequent talks between Cambodia and Thailand have not resolved the dispute and Thailand's foreign minister was forced to apologise Thursday, after being accused by Cambodian premier Hun Sen of calling him a gangster.

Officials said the "misunderstanding" came after comments that Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya made about Hun Sen in a parliamentary debate had been incorrectly translated.

Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjavjiva are both scheduled to take part in a summit between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and key regional partners in the Thai resort of Pattaya next week.

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