Cambodian and Thai troops exchanged gun, rocket and artillery fire in clashes along the disputed Preah Vihear border on Friday, with both sides blaming the other for firing first in the most serious fighting to date in a months-long standoff.
Two Thai deaths and six injuries were confirmed by the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, but Cambodian military sources said late Friday at least two more Thai soldiers were killed in afternoon battles. The Thai Embassy was not able to confirm the other two Thai fatalities.
There were conflicting reports of casualties from within the Cambodian government.
Ten Thai soldiers were being held as a result of the fighting, said government spokesman Khieu Kanharith, who told VOA Khmer no Cambodians were injured or killed.
However, Royal Cambodian Armed Forces commander Gen. Pol Sareoun said two Cambodians had been killed, in fighting started by the Thais.
Around 7:15 am, five Thai soldiers entered Veal Entry, or Eagle Field, encountering a forest encampment of Cambodian soldiers, who ordered them to turn back, military officials in Phnom Penh and on the border said.
Cambodian infantryman Chan Chhorn, who was monitoring radio traffic near Eagle Field Friday morning, told VOA Khmer the Thais had fired first.
The Thai Embassy could not confirm who shot first, but a Thai military spokesman told CNN in Bangkok that the fighting was sparked by an “intrusion” of Cambodian troops on Thai soil.
By 1:30 pm, the fighting had spread to three other sites—Phnom Trap, an area known as “Beehive,” and Krom market, near Preah Vihear temple—according to Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who provided reporters a map of the fighting late Friday.
A civilian market area burned and portions of Preah Vihear temple were damaged by rocket and machine gunfire Friday afternoon, Chan Chhorn said.
The fighting had stopped by Friday evening, officials said.
No civilians were reported dead Friday. A villager living near the temple said those who had motorcycles or cars had fled the area.
The shooting follows the injury to a landmine by one Thai soldier near Eagle Field Thursday and a tense armed standoff without shooting at Eagle Field on Monday and Tuesday. Eagle Field was also the site of fighting in October, where at least one Thai and three Cambodians died.
Thai and Cambodian troops have been amassed along the border since July 2008, when Preah Vihear temple’s Unesco World Heritage listing sparked protests in Bangkok and on the border. Friday’s fighting was the most serious so far, in a series of escalations since July.
Both sides lay claim to a small stretch of land near the ancient cliff-top temple, with each using different map versions to mark the border.
Friday’s fighting had not canceled a scheduled meeting between joint border committees in Phnom Penh on Monday and Tuesday, according to Var Kimhong, chief of Cambodia’s border committee.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to attend an Asean forum in Thailand next week. Officials could not confirm whether that trip will be canceled as a result of Friday’s fighting.