The long-simmering tension along the Cambodian and Thailand border today erupted in a gun-battle in which at least two soldiers were killed as both sides opened fire with rockets and small arms.
After months in which troops from either country have been camped out on the border close to the ancient Preah Vihear temple complex, soldiers exchanged fire for around an hour. Both sides blamed each other for starting the shooting.
Last night the Cambodian Foreign Minister, Hor Namhong, said that two Cambodian soldiers had been killed and that another two were wounded. A military official said that up to 20 Thai soldiers had been taken prisoner, though such claims could not be independently verified. In turn, a Thai military spokesman said that five soldiers were wounded. The government also warned Thai nationals to leave Cambodia immediately.
The gun-battle is the most serious incident in more than four months of tension relating to a disputed border close to a 1,000-year-old temple set atop a 1,700ft escarpment. It is taking place against a background of serious political turmoil in Thailand.
The dispute dates originally from 1962 when, despite protests from Thailand, the International Court of Justice awarded the temple to Cambodia. It failed, however to decide upon the ownership of around two square miles of land next to the temple.
This summer, as Cambodia won World Heritage status for the Hindu temple complex from UNESCO, anti-government campaigners in Thailand seized on the parcel of disputed land as a political issue and sought to whip up nationalist fervour. Within days, more than 2,000 Thai and Cambodian troops were dug in to trenches and facing off with each other just yards apart.
Last night, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen held an emergency meeting with government and military chiefs to determine what to do next. Earlier in the week the former Khmer Rouge commander had claimed a contingent of Thai troops had crossed the border illegally and warned of creating a "death zone" there if they did not promptly withdraw. "At any cost we will not allow Thai troops to invade this area," he had added. "I would like to be clear about this. It is a life-and-death battle zone."
But the foreign minister, Hor Namhong, said that a scheduled meeting between the two countries on the border dispute would go ahead as planned today (Thursday). "It is a good sign that we can start to solve this conflict," he said. "We consider this an incident between soldiers and not an invasion by Thailand."
Meanwhile in Bangkok, senior officials urged its citizens to leave Cambodia. Mindful of an attack on the Thai embassy and businesses in Phnom Penh in 2003 following a dispute over the more famous Angkor Wat temple, Thailand's Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat said: "Thai businessmen who have no need to be in Cambodia now, please rush back to Thailand."
He told reporters that the military had in place an evacuation plan that was ready to be triggered if needed. In 2003, Thai commandos and military transport planes landed in the middle of the night at Phnom Penh airport to oversee the evacuation of 600 Thais during riots. There are an estimated 1,000 Thais in the Cambodian capital and another 500 in the city of Siem Reap.
The violence comes amid ongoing political turmoil in Thailand where campaigners have been trying to force the ousting of the government. Clashes between police and protestors from the conservative People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) led to a recent decision to ask the army to help ensure security in Bangkok. On one occasion last week, the recently elected prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, was forced to flee the parliament building in a helicopter to avoid thouands of demonstrators gathered outside.
So far, the army - which has launched numerous coups in Thailand, most recently in 2006 - has resisted demands from some quarters to again step in and take control. However, many democrats are nervous that they would succumb to pressure if the demonstrations and violence continues to escalate. Quite how this border incident will affect the turmoil is so far unclear.
Even until recent years, the Preah Vihear temple, built in the 9th and 10th centuries, has continued to serve as a strategic outpost. In the spring of 1975, as Khmer Rouge rebels were seizing control of Phnom Penh, government troops continued to defend a base at Preah Vihear more than a month after the rest of the country had fallen.
Meanwhile in 1998, as the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge regime were surrendering to government forces, the temple was the location of protracted negotiations that led to the settlement. Even after that it remained off limits to tourists because of the number of landmines littering the area. The Cambodian authorities hoped the new status conferred on the stunning ruins would help lure more tourists.
The gunbattle is not the first time both sides have exchanged fire along the border. Earlier this month one Cambodian and two Thais were wounded when the two sides started shooting.