- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

KOH SLA, CAMBODIA (AP) - Cambodia’s prime minister on Saturday downplayed the border clashes that killed at least three Thai soldiers near a disputed 11th century temple as a mere “incident” between neighbors that would not erupt into a war.

Military commanders from both sides said calm had been restored after Friday’s fighting, in which troops exchanged fire with assault rifles and rocket launchers along Cambodia’s northern border near Preah Vihear temple.

Thailand acknowledged that three of its soldiers had been killed and 12 wounded. Cambodia said its military suffered no casualties.

“Yesterday there was brief fighting, but the fighting was like neighbors who live close to each other and always have disputes,” Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said. “Today they have a dispute, then they soothe things and talk to each other.”

The border area has been a hot spot since Thailand took offense over Cambodia having the temple declared a U.N. World Heritage Site last year.

Although the World Court ruled in 1962 that the temple, also claimed by Thailand, is on Cambodian territory, many Thais still rankle over the decision. Thailand continues to claim nearby land where the fighting took place.

The temple tensions erupted in brief border clashes last year, killing two Cambodian soldiers and one Thai, and both sides have stepped up deployment of soldiers at the border since then.

On Saturday, Hun Sen, who just a few days earlier had issued a fierce warning that Thailand would face tough fighting if its troops crossed into disputed territory, struck a conciliatory tone.

Smiling as he spoke, he described the burst of combat as an “incident,” not a war.

He said Friday’s fighting was triggered when Thai soldiers advanced into heavily mined territory claimed by Cambodia and ignored warnings to turn back. Thai officials denied any intrusion and said they went into the disputed area to clear explosives after a Thai soldier lost his leg when he stepped on a mine Thursday. Thai authorities said the Cambodian troops fired first.

Hun Sen emphasized that the fighting left no Cambodian soldiers killed or wounded, with “not even a scratch.”

Thailand’s deputy regional commander, Maj. Gen. Tawatchai Samutsakorn, said three Thai soldiers were killed _ including one who died in a hospital Friday night _ and 12 were wounded. Cambodia earlier had said as many as four Thai soldiers were killed.

Thai army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda said Sunday that Thailand is not planning any military response or troop redeployment following the clash.

“This has to be resolved through negotiations,” he said. “Any redeployment will have to be done on both sides.”

Since Friday, Thailand has closed down the road leading to Preah Vihear temple _ which is more easily accessed from the Thai side _ to ensure the safety of civilians and tourists, Tawatchai said.

___

Associated Press writer Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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