Preah Vihear, Cambodia: Thai and Cambodian troops stood on high alert on Tuesday after clashing in disputed jungle around a 11th-century Hindu temple, as both sides face intense regional diplomatic pressure to lay down arms.
Soldiers on both sides of the border held fire but dug in positions, bracing for more fighting after four days of deadly clashes in the 4.6-sq-km (two-sq-mile) contested area around the Preah Vihear temple claimed by the Southeast Asian neighbours.
Thailand and Cambodia blame each other for provoking intense exchanges of fire that killed at least two Thais and eight Cambodians and energised ultra-nationalist Thai “yellow shirt” protesters who are demanding Thailand’s government step down.
In Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province, soldiers allowed some journalists through military checkpoints near the 900-year-old clifftop temple.
Felled trees, small craters and blackened remnants of fires told a story of fierce fighting around the temple which sustained only minor damage from grenades fired from over the border.
Cambodia’s government accused Thai soldiers of causing a wing of the temple to collapse, but there was no visible evidence of such damage.
‘A lot of uncertainty´
Cambodian soldiers said there was no sign of fighting since early Monday, but the situation remained tense.
“We’re ready because we can’t trust the Thais anymore,” said Muong Van, an infantry soldier.
In Cambodia’s northern frontier areas, pigs and chickens roamed deserted villages. Schools and temples were turned into makeshift refugee centers, and naked children played as people collected firewood or queued for handouts of rice and water.
On the Thai side, villages such as Ban Sangam in Si Sa Ket province about 7 km (4.3 miles) from the border were eerily quiet, aside from the occasional sound of military trucks.
Somsak Suvarnsujarit, governor of Si Sa Ket province, said 16,654 people had been evacuated.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty and we will only let people move back into villages when there is a clear sign from the army that situation has returned to normal,” he said.
The Thai government said 30 Thai soldiers and 4 villagers had been wounded so far. At least 55 Cambodians have been wounded, according to figures provided by Cambodia’s government.
No UN Security Council meeting planned
Reasons behind the fighting remain murky. Some analysts say hawkish Thai generals and nationalist allies may be trying to topple Thailand’s government or create a pretext to stage another coup and cancel elections expected this year.
Others say it may be a breakdown in communication channels at a time of strained relations over Cambodia’s flying of a national flag in the disputed area and laying of a stone tablet inscribed with “This is Cambodia.”
Diplomatic pressure is building. China, the Asean southeast Asian regional grouping and Washington have urged both sides to show restraint.
In New York, the UN Security Council rejected Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s call for an urgent meeting and the deployment of peacekeepers, saying the problem should be solved at a regional level
The Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), of which both Cambodia and Thailand are members, dispatched Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa to Cambodia on Monday and to Thailand on Tuesday in a bid to defuse the crisis.
“On the eve of an Asean community in 2015, guns must be silent in southeast Asia,” he said in Phnom Penh.
The dispute threatens to worsen hostility between Thai political factions ahead of this year’s expected election.
The “yellow shirts” group of protesters, whose crippling rallies helped bring Abhisit to power, have turned against him in recent weeks, calling for a tougher line against Cambodia.
In 2008, they occupied state offices for three months and blockaded Bangkok’s main airport until a court expelled a government allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a step that led to Abhisit taking power.
Thailand’s cabinet is expected on Tuesday to impose the Internal Security Act so security forces could stop the protesters from occupying government buildings in Bangkok in demonstrations planned for Friday.