Clashes along Thai-Cambodia border spread east

AP News
Posted: Apr 26, 2011 12:29 PM
Clashes along Thai-Cambodia border spread east

Boonhome Surasuk has slept in a bomb shelter in his mostly abandoned village since late last week when the deadliest fighting in years erupted between Thailand and Cambodia.

"I still don't know why they are fighting. Maybe they want the land," the 56-year-old Thai farmer said Tuesday of the latest conflict along the border near his home that so far has killed 13 soldiers and displaced 50,000 residents. Hours later, Boonhome fled into the cement bunker again as artillery rained down and fighting entered a fifth day.

It remains unclear what exactly started the skirmishes. Control over the disputed land has stirred nationalism on both sides, and domestic politics may be fueling the conflict, especially in Thailand, where a military that staged its latest of several coups in 2006 could be flexing its muscle ahead of elections due in June or July.

"All I can say is that it affects us all," said Boonhome, one of about 80 men left in the mostly abandoned Thai village of Nong Kanna, about three miles (five kilometers) from the Cambodian border. Normally about 1,000 people live there.

The largely long-distance artillery battles started Friday and were centered first around the ruins of the nearly 1,000-year-old Ta Moan and Ta Krabey temples, which are on territory claimed by both countries. On Tuesday, fighting spread 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the east, to an area near the 11th century Hindu temple Preah Vihear that was the scene of four days of deadly fighting in February.

Preah Vihear is the most prominent symbol of the border dispute, which has erupted several times since 2008, when the temple was given U.N. World Heritage status over Thailand's objections.

On Tuesday, the sound of explosions could still be heard sporadically in the border region after nightfall. A Cambodian field commander, Col. Suos Sothea, said in the afternoon there had also been a new round of artillery duels near Ta Moan.

In Nong Kanna, Boonhome said the village was alive with the sound of playing children just last week, but now "all we hear is the sound of gunshots and fighting."

Shortly after speaking to an Associated Press reporter, Boonhome fled to a concrete and wood bomb shelter built into the earth near a school as Cambodian shells again rained down, causing no casualties.

"I don't dare go out of the bunker right now," the 56-year-old farmer later told the AP by cell phone. "This is even worse than the days before."

Other villagers in Nong Kanna who refused to evacuate were hiding under large cement water pipes and digging temporary bunkers at the end of the sugar cane fields. Some carried shotguns. Many of those who fled left tractors and motorcycles behind.

Cambodia said one of its soldiers was killed in fighting late Monday, bringing the total toll among Thai and Cambodian troops to 13. Government authorities say about 30,000 Thai civilians and 20,000 Cambodians have fled their homes.

Each side accuses the other of starting the battles, and international efforts to end the conflict have failed.

Late Monday, the U.S. threw its support behind the mediation efforts of Indonesia, current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. was deeply concerned about the violence. In a statement, she urged both sides to exercise restraint and act to reduce tensions. Clinton said U.S. officials were talking with both countries.

Thailand has so far rejected mediation, saying the two countries have to resolve the dispute alone. But on Sunday, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya indicated that Bangkok might accept Indonesian military observers at the border, a proposal already accepted by Cambodia.


Associated Press reporters Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Todd Pitman in Bangkok contributed to this report.