U.S. starts war games near Thai-Cambodian clash

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BANGKOK | Thousands of U.S. troops began military exercises with Bangkok’s military on Monday, while a bloody, four-day artillery duel between Thailand and Cambodia flared on their border and a decades-long Muslim insurgency smoldered out of control in the south.

Cobra Gold, which is scheduled to conclude Feb. 18, is one of the world’s biggest multinational, land-based maneuvers. It involves 11,220 people, including 7,200 U.S. service members.

U.S. and other foreign forces are using Thailand’s Vietnam War-era Utapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield in Chanthaburi province and other facilities, about 280 miles southwest of the fighting along the Thai-Cambodian border.

The U.S. Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, is deployed in Korat, about 180 miles west of the clashes.

U.S. boots are on the ground in this Buddhist, Southeast Asian ally, while a shooting feud between Thailand and Cambodia has killed at least seven people and wounded dozens more.

In this photo released by China's Xinhua news agency, Cambodian armed vehicles stand by Sunday in Preah Vihear province, 300 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Associated Press/Xinhua)

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In this photo released by China’s Xinhua news agency, Cambodian armed vehicles ... more >

During the past four days, Thailand and Cambodia attacked each other’s jungle-based positions with artillery, mortars, rocket-fired grenades and other weapons, pausing on occasion before shooting again.

They fought for at least one hour Monday after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said, “We need the United Nations to send forces here and create a buffer zone to guarantee that there is no more fighting.”

Both sides then agreed to an unofficial cease-fire, but Thailand rejected U.N. intervention and insisted on direct talks with Cambodia.

Elsewhere in Thailand, the U.S. military’s 30th Cobra Gold planned several live-fire demonstrations and other assaults.

Thai Lt. Gen. Surapun Wongthai serves as exercise commander, with U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth Glueck Jr. as deputy commander, the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported.

Among the U.S. Marine units participating in Thailand are: Okinawa’s 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment acting as its ground combat element; Marine Wing Support Squadron 172; Marine Aircraft Group 36; and Combat Logistics Regiments 35 and Combat Logistics Regiment 3, it said.

The Sasebo, Japan-based USS Essex, USS Germantown and USS Denver are also involved.

Cobra Gold training exercises include troops from Japan, South Korea, Singapore and, for the first time, Malaysia.

An amphibious assault is scheduled for Thursday on Thailand’s southern Hat Yao coast. The cross-border fighting by Thailand and Cambodia was not expected to spill into areas used by Cobra Gold.

Each side repeatedly said the other country’s forces fired first after shells landed in Thailand and Cambodia, hitting villages, setting homes and shops on fire and forcing hundreds of people to flee.

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