By SETH MYDANS
Published: February 7, 2011
THNAL BEK, Cambodia — Refugees clustered around cooking fires at a schoolhouse here as Cambodia and Thailand prepared for the possibility of further violence after a fourth day of shelling on Monday at their disputed border.
The Cambodian Army cleared out military vehicles and construction equipment and evacuated villagers from the foot of a steep cliff that is the site of an 11th-century Hindu temple claimed by both sides.
The dispute involves a century-old French colonial map, a ruling by the International Court of Justice and a decision in 2008 by Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, to list the temple, Preah Vihear, as a Cambodian World Heritage site.
It has become tangled within the complex knot of Thai politics as well as simmering enmity between the two neighbors that has erupted into violence near the temple several times since the World Heritage listing.
The current fighting is the most sustained engagement between the two nations. As many as five civilians and soldiers have been killed on both sides, according to Thai and Cambodian news media reports.
Cambodia called on the United Nations to send peacekeepers to the border area one day after asking the Security Council to convene an urgent meeting to “stop Thailand’s aggression.”
“We will go to the Security Council whether you like it or not,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech Monday, addressing his counterparts in Thailand. “The armed clash is threatening regional security.”
Thailand has always taken the position that the dispute is a bilateral issue and that there is no need to involve outside organizations.
The Thai Foreign Ministry sent its own letter to the Security Council on Monday formally protesting what it called “repeated and unprovoked armed attacks by Cambodian troops.”
Both sides have accused each other of initiating the conflict and of shooting first in each exchange of shelling.
“Thai soldiers had no choice but to exercise the inherent right of self-defense,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand said.
The Cambodian government said that Thai shelling had damaged part of the temple, but reporters were barred from the conflict area and the report was impossible to verify.
Late Sunday, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said he was “deeply concerned” by the fighting and urged both sides “to exercise maximum restraint,” according to a statement by his spokesperson.
In the dispute, both sides offer different interpretations of a French colonial map drawn up at the beginning of last century.
The temple is most easily accessible on the Thai side. It can be reached only up a steep cliff on the Cambodian side.
In 1962, the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia.
The Cambodian side erected a plaque near the temple that read, in English: “Here! is the place where Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory on July 15, 2008, and withdrew at 10:30 A.M. on Dec. 1, 2010.”
Responding to Thai demands, the Cambodians removed the plaque, but replaced it with another that read: “Here! is Cambodia.” It, too, was later removed amid objections from Thailand.
The temple dispute has become a rallying cry for the “yellow shirt” demonstrators in Thailand, who oppose the “red shirts” who occupied Bangkok’s central shopping area last year in a protest that ended with a military crackdown.
As political tensions heat up in an election year in Thailand, thousands of yellow shirt protesters have blocked a Bangkok street for a second week, demanding that Mr. Abhisit take tougher measures at the border.
Some have called for Mr. Abhisit to resign, the same demand the red shirts made last year.