- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 4, 2009

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia | Thai and Cambodian soldiers revived a long-simmering dispute over an 11th-century temple near their border by trading fire Friday with machine guns and rocket launchers in clashes that left as many as four people dead.

The latest flare-up - if not quickly resolved - could overshadow a summit of Asian leaders opening next week in the Thai coastal town of Pattaya. The summit already was delayed once in December after anti-government demonstrators took over Thailand’s two main airports in Bangkok.

Friday’s fighting broke out near the cliff-top Preah Vihear temple, which is on the Cambodian side of an ill-defined border. Soldiers clashed again hours later, but the area was quiet by evening and the two sides were in talks to defuse the crisis.

Accounts from the two sides varied on casualties and other details. Both sides said Cambodia fired first, but Cambodian officials said it was because Thais strayed into their territory, while Thailand’s Foreign Ministry denied that its soldiers left its territory. The ministry said the Thai soldiers were investigating a land mine blast the previous day that took off a soldier’s leg.

Each side said the other fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said four Thai soldiers were killed and 10 captured. Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said one Thai soldier was killed, seven were injured and none was taken prisoner, while two Thai army officers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said two soldiers were killed and 10 injured.

“The fighting has stopped. Commanders from both sides are talking,” said Maj. Nou Sarath, a Cambodian officer at the border.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat said the talks later adjourned and would resume Saturday.

Leaders in both countries have a history of playing to nationalist sentiment in sovereignty disputes.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is a blunt, tough-talking leader who has warned that he is willing to go to war over the temple.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is more diplomatic, but his supporters include the yellow-shirted activists of the People Alliance for Democracy, who are intensely nationalistic and last year rallied around the temple dispute in their campaign against the previous government. They brought the administration to a near standstill in November by besieging government offices and the Bangkok airports.

The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over the surrounding land has never been resolved.

Tensions flared last July when UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, approved Cambodia’s bid to have the Preah Vihear temple named a World Heritage Site, leading some Thais to believe their claims to the surrounding land was being undermined.

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

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