A fire rages not far from the 11th century Preah Vihear temple on the Thai-Cambodian border. Photograph supplied
It's been quiet in Preah Vihear since Cambodian and Thai troops agreed to a cease-fire in 2011, but the sound of shells exploding was heard again on Sunday evening as a fire blazed around the contested World Heritage site.
The fire started downhill of the site before spreading to the ancient Dragon Stair on the temple’s eastern side and setting off five mortar shells believed to have been dropped during the clash between Thai and Cambodian forces in February 2011, Chan Chhorn, an information official at Preah Vihear National Authority, said yesterday.
Forest in the vicinity of the temple had been burning for several days, but when flames came near the temple on Sunday, border police and heritage officers at the site sprang into action and, between 6pm and 9pm, managed to put out the flames threatening the ancient structure, Chhorn said.
“The fire now continues burning the forest downhill from the temple, but it no longer risks affecting the temple at the top [of the hill],” he said.
According to Chhorn, Thai officers stationed on the Thai side of the demilitarised zone heard the mortar explosions but did not panic because they understood the fire had set off the weapons.
“It did not cause any confusion,” he said, adding that Thai officers had watched from their side as the Cambodian officers controlled the flames around the temple.
Sun Saing, chief abbot of the Keo Sekha Kirisvara pagoda near the temple, said the fire had not caused any damage to the temple’s ancient staircase, as police had controlled it in time.
The area around the temple had seen several forest fires in recent years, said Phat Sophen, chief of Preah Vihear’s Cambodian-Thai border relations office.
While it was unusual for flames to get so close to the temple or set off mortar shells, the incident had not caused any alarm on either side of the demilitarised zone, he said.
In April, Cambodian and Thai diplomats and legal officers will travel to The Hague to present their arguments relating to interpretation of the court’s 1962 ruling that the site belonged to Cambodia.
To contact the reporter on this story: Cheang Sokha at [email protected]