Armed clashes between Cambodian and Thai border forces on Friday left six soldiers dead and several wounded only two months after the two countries agreed to a ceasefire brokered by the U.N. Security Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The clashes, on the border of Cambodia’s Oddar Meanchey and Thailand’s Surin provinces, occurred near the temple sites of Ta Moan Thom and Ta Krabey, about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the location of the February skirmishes at Preah Vihear temple.
Military officials from both countries confirmed casualties, but disagreed on which side initiated the skirmish.
Cambodian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Chhum Socheat told reporters at a news conference that the fighting broke out when Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory, ambushing three soldiers and wounding six.
He said that Thai artillery shells had hit four Cambodian villages and that Cambodian troops responded with rocket-propelled grenades in a melee that began at daybreak and lasted for nearly three hours.
“Cambodian troops maintained control of the battlefield,” he said.
Thailand’s Lt. Gen. Thawatchai Samutsakorn said Thai soldiers fired back in self-defense.
"Cambodia started attacking our temporary base with artillery fire and we responded to defend ourselves," he said.
Thai army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong said three Thai paramilitary rangers were killed and 13 wounded, adding that fighting began after Cambodian troops moved the position of a bunker in violation of a ceasefire pact.
"When warned, Cambodian troops stepped closer and started firing," she said.
Both countries said they had begun to evacuate thousands of civilians from nearby villages.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers told reporters that the Cambodia Red Cross is working to evacuate and assist thousands of civilians who fled their homes near the clashes.
“The government and Red Cross have already prepared to evacuate the civilians,” Phay Siphan said.
Cambodian soldiers from the front told RFA that the Thai military had shelled Cambodian villages during the clash, but reported no casualties.
Thailand’s government said it had moved some 7,500 villagers out of the area as a precaution against further fighting.
A witness from one Thai village told Reuters that occasional gunshots and shelling could still be heard hours after the clash.
Violation of ceasefire
After calm had returned to the border, both governments accused the other of violating a permanent ceasefire pact brokered by the U.N. Security Council and ASEAN on Feb. 22.
That agreement, which would allow unarmed military observers from Indonesia to be posted along the border, has yet to be implemented.
Thailand has insisted that international observers are unnecessary and that the issue should be solved bilaterally.
Following the clash, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya again stated his country’s reluctance to involve foreign mediators in the border dispute.
"There's a mechanism in place, so there's no need to run crying to ASEAN or the international community," Kasit told a news conference in Bangkok.
But Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung called on ASEAN to immediately dispatch Indonesian observers to the disputed border areas.
And Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong wrote to the U.N. Security Council in New York, accusing Thailand of a "blatant" attack, adding that its refusal to allow third party mediation was a "pretext for using its larger and materially more sophisticated armed forces against Cambodia."
ASEAN rarely intervenes in the internal affairs of its member states. The decision to send the 40 Indonesians marks the first time the body has sent observers to a dispute site since 2005, when it helped to end hostilities between rebels and government troops in western Indonesia.
The clash marks the first time soldiers from the two countries have exchanged fire at an ancient temple site other than the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, where three Thais and eight Cambodians were killed and dozens injured in fighting over Feb. 4-7.
The two nations have clashed several times over the land surrounding Preah Vihear temple since the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded the complex U.N. World Heritage status in July 2008.
The International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia in 1962, but never issued a clarification on the ownership of nearby land.
The issue has been a source of contention for nationalists on both sides of the border.
The clash is likely to lend leverage to the ultra-nationalist yellow shirt movement, which has been calling on Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to take a tougher stance on relations with Cambodia ahead of elections expected in June or July.
Reported by Hang Savyouth, Sok Serey and Yun Samean for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Vuthy Huot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.