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On Thai Border, a Return to Tense Normality

Just a few days after one hour of military clashes at Preah Vihear temple last week, villagers are returning to their homes along the border and life is easing back to an uneasy status quo.

Along the red, muddy road that leads to the temple, the villagers are returned to their wooden shacks, households quickly returning to a kind of normal after gun fights between Thai and Cambodian soldiers Wednesday drove them away.

Nearly all the villagers near Preah Vihear temple, the center of a three-month military standoff, fled after the clashes.

"I was inside a trench, but I was still afraid," said Chan Son, the 40-year-old wife of a motorcycle taxi driver. "So my husband and I decided not to stay, because we heard loud noises of fighting."

"When I saw on the road a Thai flag, I jumped off the moto and my husband admonished me," she said.

The two fled as far as Sa Em, 30 kilometers from her home at K-1 village at the base of the Dangrek mountains near Preah Vihear temple.

"But now we are back, because we had nothing to do there," she said Sunday at her small home in K-1 village.

About 340 of 473 families had returned to the area, said Prak Phi, chief of Sa Em, Svay Chroung, K-1 and Prasat villages. The families had gone into Preah Vihear and Siem Reap towns, as far as 100 kilometers from the fighting, he said.

For people in K-1 village, the jumping off point for a climb up the mountain to the temple, a return meant coming back to a livelihood, vending from a small collection of buildings at the bottom of the mountain or driving motorcycle taxis.

Most tourists are gone now. Only soldiers remain, scattered throughout the forest along the roadway.

Higher up the mountain, in Prasat village, people have a harder time making a living, but, since the fighting began, a handful have sought refuge in Preah Vihear temple itself, sharing a small sleeping space, leg on leg and head to head.

Some have been able to earn money by selling soft drinks and vegetables to soldiers on the mountain.

The non-governmental organization CARITAS Cambodia on Sunday began assessing the needs of such people living near the fighting. They found people short on food and water and in need of health assistance.

By Sunday, no further violence had been reported since Wednesday's fighting. Military officers promised to prevent further clashes and plan to set up more discussions between commanders on the front line.

However, both sides have again begun digging trenches, as well as sending more soldiers, supplies and ammunition to the front.

Cambodian soldiers on Sunday returned confiscated B-40 rockets to the Thai side and re-equipped 10 Thai soldiers staying at the Keo Sakha Kiri Svah pagoda, west of the temple, where the military standoff began on July 15.

Commanders for Cambodia's Military Region 4 and Thailand's Military Region 2 will meet on Thursday in Siem Reap, while Prime Minister Hun Sen hopes to meet his Thai counterpart this week during international forums in Beijing.