AP - Machine-gun and artillery fire echoed across the frontier between Thailand and Cambodia on Monday as their troops clashed near an 11th century temple in the fourth day of fighting that has killed at least five people.
The crumbling stone temple, several hundred feet from Thailand’s eastern border with Cambodia, has fueled nationalism on both sides of the disputed frontier for decades and conflict over it has sparked sporadic, brief battles in recent years. However, sustained fighting has been rare.
Cambodian officials say Thai artillery collapsed part of a wall Sunday at the Preah Vihear temple, a U.N. World Heritage site, but Thai officials have dismissed that account as propaganda, and the extent of damage is unknown.
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said skirmishes began again early Monday after halting around midnight. There was no immediate comment from Thai authorities, but an Associated Press reporter in the area said the sound of gunfire and artillery could be heard.
Late Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply concerned” by the fighting and urged both sides “to exercise maximum restraint,” his spokesperson said in a statement.
In 1962, the World Court determined that the temple belongs to Cambodia. Thai nationalists dispute the ruling and have seized on it as a domestic political issue.
At least five people have died in the border clashes that began Friday – one civilian and one soldier from Thailand and one civilian and two soldiers from Cambodia.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned that the fighting poses a threat to regional stability. He said the latest clash was sparked after Thai soldiers crossed the border in search of a slain comrade, and Cambodians opened fire to repel them. He spoke Monday during a university graduation ceremony in the capital, Phnom Penh.
On Sunday night, a Thai army spokesman said about 10 Thai soldiers were wounded. Hun Sen said then that the clashes Sunday resulted in “more human casualties and damages” but did not elaborate.
Hun Sen has sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council calling for an emergency meeting to help end the fighting.
On Sunday, the Cambodian government issued a statement saying “a wing of our Preah Vihear Temple has collapsed as a direct result of the Thai artillery bombardment.” It did not say how large the wing was.
Built between the 9th and 11th centuries, Preah Vihear is dedicated to the Hindu diety Shiva and revered partly for having one of the most stunning locations of all the temples constructed during the Khmer empire – the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. It sits atop a 1,722-foot (525-meter) cliff in the Dangrek Mountains about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of the Cambodian capital.
UNESCO calls the site “an outstanding masterpiece of Khmer architecture.” The Khmer empire, which once encompassed parts of Thailand and Vietnam, shrank to the size of present-day Cambodia. The country was plunged into civil war, and the temple fell into disrepair.
Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd dismissed reports of damage to the temple as “propaganda,” but said Sunday’s fighting was more intense than the previous two days.
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.
Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called earlier Sunday for a peaceful solution to the border dispute, but warned that Thai soldiers would defend national sovereignty if attacked.