Wednesday, October 15, 2008

October 15, 2008; PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia

Rockets, small arms fired across border. Seven Thais/Cambodians wounded. Thailand urges nationals to leave Cambodia.

Thai and Cambodian troops fired rockets and small arms at each other on a disputed stretch of border on Wednesday, killing two Cambodians and prompting Bangkok to tell its citizens to return home.

Both sides accused each other of firing first in the clash, which comes amid huge political instability in Bangkok, with protesters in a long-running street campaign urging the army to launch a coup against the elected government.

Two Cambodians were killed, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said, and at least seven soldiers from both sides were wounded in the most serious incident in four months of tension at the Preah Vihear temple.

Hor Namhong said a scheduled meeting between the two countries on the border dispute would go ahead as planned on Thursday, suggesting that escalation was not inevitable.

"It is a good sign that we can start to solve this conflict," he told reporters. "We consider this an incident between soldiers and not an invasion by Thailand."

Cambodia's army had captured 10 Thai soldiers, Hor Namhong told a news conference in Phnom Penh.

"The prime minister has ordered that the 10 soldiers be treated well," he said, adding that they would be returned to Thailand if Bangkok requested.

The Thai military said no soldiers were missing.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen huddled in an emergency meeting with government and military chiefs to determine a response to the fighting around the monument, a source of tension between the two southeast Asian nations for more than a century.

The site is 600 km (370 miles) east of Bangkok and few foreign tourists venture there, especially after the tension of recent months.

The International Court of Justice awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962 but it failed to determine ownership of 1.8 square miles (4.6 sq km) of scrub next to the ruins.

This small parcel of land became highly politicised in July when the Thai anti-government movement adopted it as a cause, whipping up a torrent of nationalism.

Within days, 2,000 soldiers were facing off in trenches dug into a hillside that until 10 years ago was under the control of remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot's guerrilla army.

"The Thai military are very much under pressure to protect the national sovereignty and territory," Panitan Wattanayagorn, a military analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University said.

However, he also said that Hun Sen, a wily former Khmer Rouge soldier, was just as likely to be trying to steal a march against his larger neighbour in the middle of its political turmoil.

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