Thai and Cambodian troops clashed for a third successive day yesterday over their disputed border, with gunfire and explosions echoing through mountainous jungle for several hours despite a call for a ceasefire by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
At least 10 people were killed in the fighting on Friday and Saturday, near two disputed 12th-century Hindu temples. The clashes follow a four-day confrontation in February which claimed 11 lives, making this year's stand-off the bloodiest in nearly two decades and raising questions about what is behind it.
Cambodia's Defense Ministry accused Thailand of shelling civilian villages, a day after saying Thai soldiers fired cluster bombs – anti-personnel weapons banned by many countries – along with shells "loaded with poisonous gas". The Thai government said the allegations were "groundless".
No one was killed yesterday, although each side reported at least one soldier was wounded. The official toll since Friday is four Thai soldiers killed and 25 wounded, and six Cambodians killed and 17 wounded. "The situation is still under control at the moment. We can handle it," said Thai Army Lieutenant-General Thawatchai Samutsakorn, adding that he believed Cambodia's casualties outnumbered those of Thailand.
Ban Ki-moon called for maximum restraint, "serious dialogue" and an "effective and verifiable" solution to a conflict which in February he had urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to help settle.
Marty Natalegawa, foreign minister of Indonesia and ASEAN chair, will meet with the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers today. Thailand and Cambodia agreed on 22 February to allow unarmed military observers from Indonesia to be posted along their border as part of a ceasefire deal.
But that arrangement has yet to be put in place. Thailand said international observers were not required, and insisted the dispute could be resolved bilaterally. "We must not fall into Cambodia's trap in trying to spread a picture of conflict, or say the conflict is unsolvable through bilateral talks. We will definitely not let that happen," Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said yesterday. "It's the duty of all Thai people to defend our sovereignty."
As usual in Thai-Cambodian disputes, each side accused the other of firing first, but witnesses said the heaviest artillery appeared to be fired from the Thai side. The confrontation comes only a week before Abhisit is expected to dissolve parliament, paving the way for a close election expected by July. Some analysts say the government may be trying to flex its military muscle to score political points.