Thai and Cambodian troops clash again over disputed border

THAI and Cambodian troops clashed for a third straight day yesterday over their disputed border, with gunfire and explosions echoing through mountainous jungle for several hours despite a call for a ceasefire by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

The fighting, near two disputed 12th-century Hindu temples, killed at least 10 people and left 42 wounded on Friday and Saturday, and follows a four-day confrontation in February that claimed 11 lives, making this year the bloodiest in nearly two decades and raising questions over the motives.

Cambodia’s defence ministry accused Thailand of shelling civilian villages, a day after saying Thai soldiers fired cluster munitions — anti-personnel weapons banned by many countries — and shells “loaded with poisonous gas”. The Thai government said the allegations were “groundless”.

“The situation is still under control at the moment. We can handle it,” said Thai army lieutenant-general Thawatchai Samutsakorn, adding that he believed Cambodia’s casualties outnumbered their own.

The UN called for maximum restraint, “serious dialogue” and an “effective and verifiable” solution to the conflict.

Marty Natalegawa, foreign minister of Indonesia and the chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), will meet with the Thai and Cambodian foreign ministers today.

In February, Thailand and Cambodia agreed to allow unarmed military observers from Indonesia to be posted along their border as part of a ceasefire deal.

But that arrangement has yet to be put in place. Thailand said international observers were not required, insisting the dispute can be resolved bilaterally.

“We must not fall into Cambodia’s trap in trying to spread a picture of conflict, or say the conflict is unsolvable through bilateral talks. We will definitely not let that happen,” Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in his weekly televised address yesterday.

“It’s the duty of all Thai people to defend our sovereignty,” he said.

The confrontation comes just a week before Abhisit is expected to dissolve parliament, paving the way for a possible July election.

Some analysts say the government is trying to flex its military muscle in a bid to score political points.

Cambodia’s government may also be trying to stir nationalist fervour by starting a conflict to show its army can stand up to its historic rival. There has been little official explanation for the fighting.

Those caught up in the violence say they fear ties with their cross-border neighbours, many of whom are blood relatives, may never be the same.

“They are like our brothers and sisters. We have no reason to fight. We don’t know what happened. We don’t know why it happened, but we’re all scared,” said 48-year-old farmer Wanchai Chaensit, who fled his village three kilometres from the fighting.

The two countries have been at loggerheads since July 2008, when the ancient Hindu Temple of Preah Vihear, which is under Cambodia’s jurisdiction, was granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

Thailand opposed the move on the grounds that the land around it had never been demarcated.

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