Thai and Cambodian troops exchange fire

A gunfight broke out Wednesday between Thai and Cambodian troops in disputed border territory, escalating a conflict that officials from both sides fear could result in a war between the neighbors.

A Cambodian officer said shooting near a landmark 11th-century temple had stopped, at least temporarily, by 3:45 p.m., about an hour after it broke out.

Cambodian army commander Brig. Gen. Yim Pim told The Associated Press the fighting "has paused" and that commanders on the ground from both sides were trying to negotiate a cease-fire. Both sides said the other fired first.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat said seven Thai paramilitary troops were wounded in the gunfight. Cambodia's Yim Pim said there were no casualties among his country's troops.

It was not immediately clear how many troops were engaged in the shooting. But Lt. Col. Pichit Nakkarun, Thailand's field commander in the area, said before the clash that Thailand was reinforcing its forces in the area.

"We are sending in more troops and artillery as a preventive measure in case the situation escalates," he said.

The clash came a day after Cambodia's prime minister issued an ultimatum to Thailand to pull back its soldiers from disputed territory near the 11th century Preah Vihear temple.

Thailand's Foreign Ministry said 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.

The conflict is 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.

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