Photo by: Heng Chivoan
A Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldier stationed at Preah Vihear temple takes aim across the border into Thailand.
Monday, 07 February 2011 21:49 Cheang Sokha and Thet Sambath
Preah Vihear province
Cambodian and Thai troops clashed for a fourth straight day close to Preah Vihear temple today, prompting the flight of thousands of villagers from both sides of the border.
Nuth Teng, a Cambodian military official, said that fighting broke out at 4:25am and 8:12am at Ta Sem, about seven kilometres from Preah Vihear temple.
“They came and started shooting at us first,” said Nuth Teng.
Several hours of shelling and machine gun fire subsided at about 11am, creating an uneasy peace in the 4.6-square-kilometre contested area around the 11th-century temple.
Thai officials said today that two people had been killed and 34 others injured over the four days of clashes.
Speaking to reporters today, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said five Cambodians had been killed in the fighting and 45 injured.
The past four days have seen the deadliest clashes since tensions broke out on the border in July 2008, when the temple was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
About seven people had been killed in sporadic skirmishes before this round of fighting.
Both sides blame the other for sparking the clashes, which have unleashed nationalist passions in Bangkok, energising Yellow Shirt protesters demanding Thailand’s government step down.
Thai army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the Thai side had fired on Cambodian positions only in retaliation.
“Cambodian troops started firing into Thai territory and we fired back,’’ the Bangkok Post quoted him as saying.
“We retaliated and gave them what they deserved.”
Tensions also threaten to spread to other parts of the two countries’ shared border, where Cambodians claim Thai troops have been deployed since Sunday night.
“Thai soldiers have been sent at night time and deployed along the border with Cambodia,” said Banteay Meanchey provincial military commander Plon Dara. He said he met his Thai counterparts on Saturday and would continue to do so frequently – in a bid to head off any armed conflict, but said his troops were on alert “24 hours”.
“We are ready to defend our nation,” he said.
In the wake of fighting that re-erupted on Sunday night, more than 3,000 Cambodian families were evacuated from villages close to the temple to Kulen district’s Thmey commune, about 90 kilometres from Preah Vihear.
“Firstly, we will find them shelter and basic food,” said Kulen district governor Chum Poy, adding that local NGOs and the National Committee for Disaster Management were set to distribute food packages today.
Sek Pheak, 43, a resident of Thamacheat village, was one of about 1,000 villagers bunkering down in Tuol Andet pagoda in Kulen, where streams of people arrived today on trucks and improvised tractors bearing bags, sleeping mats and cooking pots.
“I could not stay in the village any longer, we started panicking when many bombs fell down nearby,” she said.
“I don’t know when can we go back, but I will stay here until the war is over.”
Forty-two-year-old Chin Choeun, another villager from the area, said that many fled their homes empty-handed as the shells began to fall.
“I have nothing here,” Chin Choeun said. “We don’t have even food or shelter.”
Sa Em, a town about 27 kilometres east of Preah Vihear, remained quiet today, after most of its inhabitants fled during the large-scale exchange of gunfire between Cambodian and Thai troops on Sunday night and early today.
Evacuations also took place across the two countries’ shared border, amid heightened tensions.
Siem Reap provincial deputy governor Bun Tharit said 158 families left from Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district and took shelter in the Sre Noy pagoda following Sunday night’s fierce clashes.
“They are leaving their houses as they want to escape from the Thai military’s artillery shelling,” Bun Tharit said.
He said he had registered them and he would discuss with the governor to look for assistance to help them.
In Phum Saron, an evacuated village in Thailand’s Sisaket province, Cambodian artillery reportedly struck several homes and a school during Sunday’s fighting. Thai soldiers guarded buildings today and said it was unclear if more fighting loomed.
Thai state media reported that about 15,000 villagers fled their homes and are now staying at five temporary shelters.
Reports also claim the government has closed Preah Vihear National Park in northeastern Sisaket province and evacuated the park’s officials out of the area.
Further along the Cambodian side of the border, life continued on relatively uninterrupted today.
Suon Khoeun, the governor of Phnom Proek district in Battambang province, said Thais and Cambodians were crossing the border back and forth as normal and soldiers were standing at their place along border.
“We have no problem with each other here,” Suon Khoeun said.
Koh Kong provincial military commander Yun Mean said the situation along the border in his province remained normal, though troops were on alert.
Two Cambodian border police and one soldier injured in the recent border clashes were being treated at Siem Reap Provincial Hospital.
The two border police, 35-year-old Kom Samnang and 25-year-old Ghing Nimol, were admitted to hospital today after being shot multiple times while driving a police car to deliver supplies to the Cambodian army, the mother of one of the men said.
All three were seriously injured, but their condition appeared to be stable.
Both men were in the same car and both had lost one of their hands as a result of the shooting.
Wet Poon, the mother of border policeman Kom Samnang, said she was “very sad” that her son had lost one of his hands.
She added that while the government placed the men in hospital, she had to provide food and drink for her son.
The Cambodian soldier, 49-year-old So Hot, was admitted to the hospital on February 4 after the first bout of clashes, with injuries to his upper chest after being shot.
Cambodian officials allege Thai millitary used cluster munitions
Cambodian officials raised suggestions today that the Thai military had deployed cluster bombs during the recent clashes.
Heng Rattana, director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, said today that CMAC staff at the border had confirmed the use of M-42 cluster munitions by the Thai army.
He said they were delivered via 155mm rockets.
“We saw it already. We verified that,” he said.
“We are very disappointed and very sorry about that, because they will remain in our country and kill our people.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said he had also received military reports that the Thais had used cluster bombs.
“[Foreign Minister] Hor Namhong also said he got information that the Thai side is using the cluster bomb,” Koy Kuong said.
“Now we are following the information,” he said. The use of cluster munitions could not be independently verified.
Colonel Veerachon Sukondhadhpatipak, deputy spokesman of the Royal Thai Army, denied the charge, saying Thai troops had only deployed conventional artillery.
“This is just a normal one, not something against international law or standards. We completely deny the reports,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO, THOMAS MILLER, VONG SOKHENG AND REUTERS