Preah Vihear province
Cambodian and Thai troops close to Preah Vihear temple remained on high alert today, following four days of clashes that left at least eight dead.
Soldiers on the Cambodian side of the border held fire but dug into positions, bracing for more fighting in the 4.6-square-kilometre disputed area surrounding the 11th-century Khmer temple.
Dom Sophal, 55, a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldier based behind Wat Keo Sekha Kirisvara, a pagoda about 300 metres from Preah Vihear, said that the situation had calmed since Monday afternoon, though Cambodian troops remained in their positions and ready to defend their territory.
“We cannot say what is going on,” Dom Sophal said while sitting in a shelter close to the front lines.
“[Fighting] can happen any time but it depends on the Thai side.”
Starting on Friday morning, troops from both sides exchanged artillery, tank and rocket fire in a series of skirmishes which came to a close on Monday morning.
The two sides have each blamed the other for starting the fighting, the deadliest clashes that have occurred since tensions broke out on the border in July 2008, following UNESCO’s listing of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site.
“It was the largest fighting I have ever met before,” said another RCAF soldier, Sam Song.
“However, our soldiers controlled the situation during the clashes.”
The way up to the temple was blocked today to tourists and civilians, though military authorities allowed some journalists access to the area around the cliff-top temple.
Felled trees, small craters and blackened remnants of fires told a story of fierce fighting around the temple, which sustained damage from grenades fired from over the border.
“Things are calm, but it’s still very tense,” said RCAF Lieutenant Tek Saran.
“We don’t know when this situation will become normal again.”
A handful of young, saffron-robed monks walked around the moss-
covered stone temple today, where they sought refuge from artillery shells that rained down on either side of the disputed frontier over the previous four days.
“In the last few days I’ve been running for cover,” said Seng Ly, a 19-year-old monk.
“The Thais are Buddhists too – why did they attack our temple? I’m really afraid.”
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said on Monday that five Cambodians had died and 45 others were injured in the skirmishes.
Thai officials said two on their side were killed and 34 injured as of Monday.
The Bangkok Post reported today, however, that another Thai soldier had died at a hospital in Ubon Ratchathani province from serious injuries sustained during the skirmish.
Sergeant Thanakorn Poonperm, 30, was admitted to the hospital after being wounded on Sunday night, the paper reported.
Nearly 3,000 Cambodian families living around the battle zone have also been evacuated to Kulen district after shelling resumed on Monday, and will return to their home village once hostilities have ceased, said Han Chheang, an officer of Caritas Cambodia who brought rice and other supplies to evacuees.
“They are in need right now,” he said.
In Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng town, about 15 kilometres from the Thai-Cambodia frontier, residents were braced for further clashes.
Shops and businesses were shuttered and truckloads of infantry soldiers rumbled towards the border, some stacked with boxes of instant noodles.
Many soldiers were permanently based at Preah Vihear, several accompanied by their children who stayed behind as thousands fled in a exodus of villagers carrying only a few personal belongings.
“My father is a soldier, so I stayed here,” said Oun Ya, 13. “I’m not scared.”
Oun Ya’s friend, Ol Pros, 15, said he had never been to school and had spent most of his life in Preah Vihear.
His future, he said, was already decided.
“When I grow up, I’m going be a soldier,” Ol Pros said as men in camouflage outfits, Kalashnikov rifles strung over their shoulders, piled up sandbags and dug trenches.
“I have to wait until I’m 18. Then I’ll join the army.”
On the Thai side of the border, villages such as Ban Sangam in Sisaket province, about seven kilometres from the border, were eerily quiet, aside from the occasional sound of military trucks.
Provincial governor Somsak Suvarnsujarit 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.
Thai Interior Minister Chavarat Chanvirakul today instructed governors of provinces close to the Cambodian border to set up “war rooms” to monitor the situation and aid Thai villagers affected by the fighting, according to Thai state media.
Also today, a Thai soldier captured by the Cambodian military at Preah Vihear temple was handed over to Thai officials at the Ministry of Defence.
Nim Sowath, the chief of Defence Minister Tea Banh’s cabinet, said Songkran Tongchompoo, 22, was captured by Cambodian soldiers during the fighting over the weekend.
“We yesterday received an official letter from Thailand’s defence ministry signed by Minister Prawit Wongsuwan on Monday, requesting Cambodia release the captured Thai soldier. This reflects that they accept they invaded,” he told reporters. “Now we have decided to give him back to Thailand.”
Prasas Prasasvinitchai, Thailand’s ambassador to Cambodia, thanked the Cambodian government “for returning Songkran Tongchompoo to Thailand so quickly”.
The handover was also attended by a representative of the International Committee of Red Cross. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THET SAMBATH AND REUTERS