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Unsteady peace holds after Thai-Cambodia clashes

world Updated: Apr 24, 2011 08:07 IST

Reuters
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An uneasy peace held overnight in the mountains and jungles of the Thai-Cambodia frontier after a second day of clashes between rival troops that killed at least four soldiers in the worst border fighting in nearly two decades.

The death toll from the gunfights and shelling stood at 11, with 43 wounded over two days of fighting around the Ta Moan and Ta Krabey temples, about 150 km (93 miles) west of the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple which saw a deadly four-day standoff in February.

Thousands of people evacuated from the villages were sheltering in camps on either side of the porous border where villagers from both countries, many of the whom share the same ethnic makeup, mingle and trade each day.

Three Cambodian soldiers and one Thai soldier were killed on Saturday in the pre-dawn clash west of Ta Krabey that lasted about five hours, a day after four Thai and three Cambodian soldiers died in battle.

Cambodia's Defense Ministry condemned Thailand for launching attacks aimed at taking control of the two temples and accused its army of firing 75 and 105 mm shells "loaded with poisonous gas".

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said the charges were "groundless" and Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council accusing Cambodia of committing "unlawful and indiscriminate attacks" by firing heavy weapons near civilians and a hospital.

Sovereignty over the ancient, stone-walled Hindu temples -- Preah Vihear, Ta Moan and Ta Krabey -- and the jungle of the Dangrek Mountains surrounding them has been in dispute since the withdrawal of the French from Cambodia in the 1950s.

Ta Moan and Ta Krabey, perched on a 10-metre (32-ft) escarpment about 12 km (seven miles) apart in landmine-riddled terrain, were built in the 12th century when the Cambodia's Khmer empire stretched across parts of Thailand.

Demarcation dispute
Thailand says the two temples are situated in its Surin province according to a 1947 map. Cambodia rejects that and says they are in its Oddar Meanchey province. Before Friday, they jointly patrolled the area largely without incident.

The United Nations urged a ceasefire following Feb. 4-7 clashes and part of a deal, brokered at a meeting of the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta has yet to be put in place.

Both sides agreed on Feb 22 to allow unarmed military observers from Indonesia to be posted along their border, but Thailand wants the issue to be resolved bilaterally by a joint commission which has yet to properly demarcate the area, despite a 10-year study.

In the Thai village of Ban Kuak Klang, 30 km (20 miles) from the scene of the fighting, thousands of people sheltered in school classrooms or under tarpaulin sheets after fleeing when loud explosions rang out across their villages.

"We don't know what happened, we don't know why it happened but we're all scared," said Wanchai Chaensit, 48, a rubber farmer who fled his home 3 km (2 miles) from the clashes.

The two countries have been locked in a standoff since July 2008, when Preah Vihear was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, which Thailand opposed on the grounds that the land around the temple had never been demarcated.

An international court awarded the temple to Cambodia 49 years ago but both countries lay claim to a 4.6 sq km (1.8 sq mile) patch of land around it.

Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, which plans to have a European Union-style community by 2015, has called for an immediate ceasefire.

Why the two countries are in conflict is a mystery but the border and relations with Cambodia have become an issue in Thailand's fractious domestic politics.

Some analysts say some hawkish Thai generals allied with ultra-nationalists could be trying to create a pretext to stage a coup to prevent elections expected by July from taking place.

Some commentators say Cambodia's government could be trying to stir nationalist fervour and score points at home by starting a conflict to show its army is capable of standing up to its historic rival.