PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia called for U.N. peacekeepers to help end the fighting along its tense border with Thailand, where artillery fire echoed for a fourth day Monday near an 11th-century temple classified as a World Heritage Site.
The crumbling stone temple, several hundred feet from Thailand’s eastern border with Cambodia, has fueled nationalism on both sides of the disputed frontier for decades, and conflict over it has sparked sporadic, brief battles in recent years. However, sustained fighting has been rare.
A one-hour clash Monday morning stopped after both sides agreed to an unofficial cease-fire. Fighting has erupted daily since Friday, leaving at least five dead and two dozen wounded.
Cambodian officials say a Thai artillery barrage Sunday collapsed part of “a wing” of the Preah Vihear temple, but Thai officials have dismissed that account as propaganda. The extent of damage was unknown because it remained too dangerous to approach the temple, Cambodian authorities said.
Both sides blame the other for instigating each day’s clashes, which have shattered a series of cease-fire agreements.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned that the fighting poses a threat to regional stability. He said the latest clash was sparked after Thai soldiers crossed the border in search of a slain comrade and Cambodians opened fire to repel them.
“We need the United Nations to send forces here and create a buffer zone to guarantee that there is no more fighting,” Hun Sen said, adding that the situation kept deteriorating and the two sides were no longer listening to each other.
Hun Sen sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Sunday calling for an emergency meeting to help end the fighting. Thailand’s Foreign Ministry sent its own letter to the Security Council on Monday to formally protest the “repeated and unprovoked armed attacks by Cambodian troops.”
“We have responded with dignity and we did not invade anybody first,” Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a Thai army spokesman, said Monday at a news conference.
He dismissed claims that the fighting constituted “a war” but acknowledged that a Thai soldier who “unintentionally entered” Cambodian territory Saturday would be held as a prisoner of war under military rules.
Ruling out foreign involvement, Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn reiterated Thailand’s traditional stance that the problem should be worked out bilaterally.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply concerned” by the fighting and urged both sides “to exercise maximum restraint,” his spokesperson said in a statement.
Singapore’s Foreign Ministry voiced its concern in a statement Monday and called for the two neighbors to negotiate for their own sake and “the broader interests of ASEAN.”
The exchange of cross-border gunfire is highly unusual among members of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In 1962, the World Court determined that the Preah Vihear temple (pronounced pray-AH vih-HEER in Cambodia and prah WEE-hahn in Thailand) belongs to Cambodia. Thai nationalists dispute the ruling and have seized on it as a domestic political issue.