Cambodia says two killed in clash at Thai border

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The Independent Online

Two Cambodian soldiers were killed today in a border gun battle with Thai troops, Cambodia's foreign minister announced, increasing the risk that long-standing tensions over territorial claims could escalate into outright war.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said that in addition to the two dead, two others had been wounded in fighting near a landmark 11th-century temple that lasted less than an hour.

Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd said five Thai soldiers were wounded, two fewer than earlier reported.

Cambodian army commander Brig. Gen. Yim Pim said fighting had "paused" by 3:45 p.m., and that commanders on the ground from both sides were trying to negotiate a cease-fire.

Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said the two countries' foreign ministers were talking to try to resolve the crisis.

"Cambodia is a good neighbor. We will use peaceful means. If there is violence, we have to negotiate," he said.

The Thai army also stated its desire to end the dispute peacefully.

"The Thai army will defend itself but the army commander has emphasized that we will not react disproportionately, which may exacerbate the problem," said army spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd. "We have reinforced out troops but from an initial assessment, the army believes the situation is now under control."

For the Cambodian side, Hor Namhong said, "We remain committed to solving the problems through peaceful means."

Both sides said the other fired first. It was not immediately clear how many troops were engaged in the shooting

Hor Namhong said 10 Thai soldiers has surrendered, were being well-treated, and would be returned to Thailand, though he did not specify when.

The clash came a day after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an ultimatum to Thailand to pull back its soldiers from disputed territory near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple.

The fighting was the latest flare-up in a decades-long dispute over a contested stretch of jungle near the Preah Vihear temple. The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over some surrounding land has never been clearly resolved.

Tensions flared July 15 after UNESCO, the U.N. agency, approved Cambodia's bid to have the Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site, leading some in Thailand to fear that its claims over the nearby land would be undermined.

Cambodia deployed about 800 troops to the border after the UNESCO decision, and Thailand sent some 400 soldiers. Both sides pulled back most of their troops in late August, but passions flared again recently.

A brief gunfight broke out between the sides earlier this month, with one Cambodian and two Thai soldiers wounded. Both sides claimed the other fired first and blamed each other for being on the wrong side of the border. Three days later, two Thai soldiers lost legs when they stepped on land mines in the area.

Thailand's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it had prepared aircraft if an evacuation was ordered of Thai citizens in Cambodia.

"We are ready for an evacuation if necessary, but right now, there has been no order to evacuate," said ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat. He said there were about 1,000 Thais in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and 500 Thais in the city of Siem Reap.

Earlier Wednesday, Thailand put jet fighters on alert at air force bases nationwide and C-130 transport planes on standby at a base in the capital, Bangkok, that could evacuate Thais living in the border area "if the tension escalates to a military confrontation," Thai air force official Group Capt. Montol Satchukorn said.

"Our forces are on alert and ready to support the army's possible operations on the border," Montol told The Associated Press. "These are just precautionary measures. It's not that we are going to war."

Cambodia's deputy defense minister, Gen. Neang Phat, said, "We remain on alert and have readied our forces adequately to protect our territory." He declined to say how many Cambodian troops had been deployed in the area.