Thailand urged its citizens to flee neighbouring Cambodia yesterday for fear of reprisals after a fierce clash between troops along a disputed border.
The fighting with small arms fire and rockets left two Cambodian soldiers dead and two wounded, while five Thai soldiers were hurt in the hour-long battle.
The violence flared near an 11th century Hindu temple that has become the focus of a renewed border row between the fractious neighbours. Last night the Thai air force put planes on standby to evacuate nationals from Cambodia. Both sides blamed the other for firing the first shots as Cambodia claimed to have taken 10 Thai troops prisoner, though there was no confirmation from Bangkok. Fears of all-out war have been rising for days as both countries ratcheted up the rhetoric over the disputed land around the Preah Vihear temple.
The decades-old dispute flared into life again four months ago after the ornately carved sandstone Cambodian ruin, perched on a steep cliff, was given UN world heritage status, inflaming ancient Thai passions. But the core of the disagreement focuses on 1.8 square miles of forest scrub adjacent to the temple that the international court of justice in The Hague awarded to Cambodia in 1962, a ruling that has rankled with Thailand ever since.
In the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, the prime minister, Hun Sen, yesterday summoned ministers and military chiefs to an emergency meeting to hammer out a response to the perceived aggression. "I have ordered Cambodia's army chiefs to take all responsibility over this area," he said. "It's a life and death battle zone. You can step on my foot a little and pull back, but you can't step on my head."
The Thai prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, appeared to try to calm the tensions, though Bangkok had reinforced its troops in the area and put its far superior forces of jet fighters on standby. Somchai denied accusations that Thai troops had crossed the line and said they would not be the first to do so as Bangkok sought to resolve the row by peaceful negotiations. "We stayed where we were," he said. "We have not moved anywhere inside [Cambodia]. Our soldiers are there to protect our territory. We will not be the ones who invade our neighbour's territory."
But the foreign minister, Sompong Amornvivat, said all Thais should leave Cambodia at once. A brief skirmish between patrolling troops broke out 12 days ago, leaving two Thai soldiers wounded. Each side blamed the other for the incursion across the fluid frontier.