By TODD PITMAN, Associated Press
Cambodia angrily rejected Thailand's accusation that Cambodian troops used a centuries-old temple along their disputed border as a military base, revving up a war of words Wednesday amid a fragile truce.
The mountaintop Preah Vihear temple, designated as a World Heritage site, was the scene of fierce artillery battles during a four-day flare-up of a long-standing border dispute between the two neighbors. The fighting left at least eight dead and dozens wounded.
Shrapnel from the blasts chipped away at some of the sanctuary's ancient walls, sparking a debate between the two sides over how much damage was done and who is to blame.
Thailand accuses Cambodia of stationing soldiers at the temple and firing across the border at Thai soldiers, leaving them little choice but to retaliate.
Cambodia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday it "strongly rejects such a slanderous assertion," adding that "there has never been and there will never be Cambodian soldiers" at Preah Vihear temple.
"This has always been a place for worship and tourism," the statement said, adding that the only security presence at the temple is a small number of policemen with light weapons to ensure safety at the site.
On Wednesday, however, hundreds of Cambodian soldiers were seen by Associated Press journalists deployed in and around the sprawling temple compound, which was fortified by sandbagged bunkers.
Dressed in military camouflage, some played cards inside the temple's shaded walls. Some rested on cots or hammocks while others poured new sandbags and stacked them up. Aside from scattered rifles, weapons were not visible.
Cambodian officials said over the weekend that Thai artillery collapsed "a wing" of the temple, but Thai officials dismissed the account as propaganda. Tuesday was the first day journalists were able to visit the temple since Cambodia made the claim. Damage appeared to be light and the structure remained intact.
Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd defended his earlier remarks about Cambodian military presence at the temple.
"It's obvious," he said. "You can take a look at the photographs, even the ones taken by them. There's definitely military presence at Preah Vihear. Their soldiers fired at us from there."
"We never intended to attack Preah Vihear," he added."We would never want to damage such a valuable cultural and religious site. The firing only occurred when they fired at us from that location."
Preah Vihear temple, built between the 9th and 11th centuries, sits on a atop a 1,722-foot (525-meter) cliff in the Dangrek Mountains along a disputed border zone between Thailand and Cambodia. It has been a source of tension and fueled nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border for decades.
It is dedicated to the Hindu diety Shiva, but it was later used as a Buddhist sanctuary. The temple is revered partly for having one of the most stunning locations of all the temples constructed during the Khmer empire -- the most famous of which is Angkor Wat.
The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over adjacent areas has never been clearly resolved.
In 2008, UNESCO backed Cambodia's bid to list the temple as a World Heritage site. Thailand initially supported the bid but then reneged after the move sparked domestic outrage and protests. Some Thais worried that the distinction would undermine their claims to a strip of surrounding land.
Both sides sent troops to the border, resulting in several small clashes over the years. But the latest skirmishes were the most intense yet, marking the first time artillery and mortars have been used, according to soldiers and locals.
The latest fighting comes as Thailand's embattled government faces protests from ultranationalists at home who say it hasn't done enough to protect Thailand's sovereignty in the border region.
UNESCO said Tuesday it plans to send a mission to the area to assess the damage.
"World Heritage sites are the heritage of all humanity and the international community has a special responsibility to safeguard them," UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker and Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report from Bangkok.