A gunfight broke out between Thai and Cambodian troops at a disputed border zone today, escalating a conflict that officials from both sides fear could result in a war between the neighbours.
“Fighting is going on,” said Major Prum Saroeun, a Cambodian police official.
“Soldiers in the field say that Thai troops fired first and our troops fired back.”
Thailand’s army spokesman Sansern Kaewkumnerd said Cambodian troops fired the first shot.
“Fighting is ongoing at the border and we are currently getting more details,” he said.
“As far as we know, the Cambodians fired at the Thai troops first.”
It was not immediately clear how many troops were engaged in the gunbattle and if there were any fatalities.
The clash came a day after Cambodia’s prime minister issued an ultimatum to Thailand to pull back its soldiers from disputed territory near the 11th-century Preah Vihear temple.
Thailand’s foreign minister Sompong Amornvivat today urged Thais to leave Cambodia as soon as possible.
Thailand put jet fighters on alert at air force bases nationwide and C-130 transport planes on standby at a base in the capital, Bangkok, to evacuate Thais living in the border area “if the tension escalates to a military confrontation,” Thai air force official Group Captain Montol Satchukorn said.
“Our forces are on alert and ready to support the army’s possible operations on the border,” he said.
“These are just precautionary measures. It’s not that we are going to war.”
Cambodia’s deputy defence minister, General Neang Phat, said: “We remain on alert and have readied our forces adequately to protect our territory.”
He declined to say how many Cambodian troops had been deployed in the area.
The conflict is the latest flare-up in a decades-long dispute over a contested stretch of jungle near the Preah Vihear temple. The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over some surrounding land has never been clearly resolved.
Tensions flared on July 15 after Unesco, the UN agency, approved Cambodia’s bid to have the Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site, leading some in Thailand to fear that its claims over the nearby land would be undermined.
Cambodia deployed about 800 troops to the border after the Unesco decision and Thailand sent some 400 soldiers.
Both sides pulled back most of their troops in late August, but passions flared again recently.
A brief gunfight broke out between the sides earlier this month, with one Cambodian and two Thai soldiers wounded.
Both sides claimed the other fired first and blamed each other for being on the wrong side of the border.
Three days later, two Thai soldiers lost legs when they stepped on land mines in the area.