- Associated Press - Sunday, February 6, 2011

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The Cambodian government on Sunday said part of an 11th-century temple was damaged Sunday by the Thai army as the two sides exchanged artillery and mortar fire across their disputed border, shattering a shaky cease-fire and escalating tensions.

The extent of the damage to the Preah Vihear temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was not clear. There were no immediate reports of casualties Sunday as fighting continued across the darkened mountainous border for more than three hours.

The fiercest border clashes in years erupted Friday and continued for a third straight day Sunday despite at least two cease-fires.

“Cambodian forces have fired artillery that have landed close to Thai positions,” Gen. Pol Vey, commander of Cambodia’s front-line forces, told Deum Ampil Radio, a station close to the government.

“Cambodian troops started firing into Thai territory, and we fired back,” Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a Thai army spokesman, said. He said the weaponry used Sunday by the Cambodian side included Soviet-made BM-21 rocket launchers, which have a range of at least 12 miles

A Cambodian government spokesman, Phay Siphan, accused the Thais of firing first.

“The fighting broke out as Thai forces entered the Cambodian side,” he said. “They walked into Cambodian territory and began the fighting.”

The clashes initially broke out in an area close to the Preah Vihear temple, which belongs to Cambodia under a 1962 World Court ruling disputed by many Thais. There were reports that Sunday’s fighting had spread closer to the temple itself.

“A wing of our Preah Vihear temple has collapsed as a direct result of the Thai artillery bombardment,” the government quoted a Cambodian military commander based near the temple as saying. It did not say how large the wing was.

There was no immediate comment from Thai authorities concerning the temple.

Preah Vihear, a Hindu temple that reflects the beliefs of the kings who ruled what was then the Angkorean empire, is located on the top of a 1,722-foot cliff in the Dangrek Mountains, about 150 miles north of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

The temple has long fueled nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border.

Both sides have accused each other of instigating the latest round of fighting. Clashes on Saturday also caused minor damage to the facade of the temple, near a strip of disputed land that Thai nationalists have seized on as a domestic political issue.

Tensions have risen in recent days because of demonstrations in the Thai capital, Bangkok, demanding that the government oust Cambodians from the area near the temple.

Tha Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called earlier Sunday for a peaceful solution to the border dispute, but he warned that Thai soldiers would defend national sovereignty if attacked.

“I insist that the dispute on the border issues must be solved through nonviolent means,” Mr. Abhisit said in his weekly address to the nation. “Thailand never thought of invading anyone, but if our sovereignty is violated, we have to protect it ultimately.”

The clashes on Friday and Saturday left at least five people dead — one civilian and one soldier from Thailand and one civilian and two soldiers from Cambodia.

Sunday’s clash started just hours after commanders stationed on both sides of the border met in the afternoon and said they would continue to respect a Saturday cease-fire and pledges not to deploy more troops to the area.

Officials on both sides said some villagers who had fled but then returned to their homes Sunday afternoon were again evacuated.

The Preah Vihear issue was virtually dormant until Cambodia successfully applied in 2008 to UNESCO to have the temple declared a World Heritage Site, an application backed by the government in power in Thailand at the time.

Thai nationalists have argued that the action threatened Thailand’s sovereignty, though their protests were seen mainly as a way of rallying criticism to help oust the Thai government. Both countries’ leaders, defending their patriotic credentials, then built up military forces at the border.

While a full-blown war is unlikely, nationalist passions are inflamed in both countries, with no clear way to settle the long-standing territorial dispute surrounding the temple, built during a time when Cambodia’s Khmer empire ruled over much of Thailand.

Thanyarat Doksone reported from Bangkok.



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