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Ceasefire marred by clashes on Thai-Cambodian border

At least two Thai soldiers were killed and seven wounded after Thai and Cambodian forces clashed on a disputed border near the Ta Moan and Ta Krabei temples Friday. It is the first major violence in the region since a tenuous ceasefire in February.

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REUTERS - Thai and Cambodian soldiers fought with rocket-propelled grenades and guns on their disputed border on Friday in a dawn clash that killed two Thai soldiers and wounded seven in the first major flare-up since a shaky ceasefire in February.

Both sides evacuated villagers and accused each other of firing first in the thick, disputed jungle around Ta Moan and Ta Krabei temples in the northeastern Thai province of Surin, about 150 km (93 miles) southwest of the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, which saw a deadly stand-off in February.
 
“Cambodia started attacking our temporary base with artillery fire and we responded to defend ourselves,” said Lt.  General Thawatchai Samutsakorn of the Thai army. “Tensions have eased for now but both sides are holding position.”
 
Two Thai paramilitary rangers were killed and seven wounded, said Thai army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong, adding that fighting began after Cambodian troops altered a bunker in the area in violation of a ceasefire pact.
 
“When warned, Cambodian troops stepped closer and started firing,” she said.
 
Cambodia suffered fatalities but it was unclear how many, Cambodian defence ministry spokesman Lt. General Chhum Socheat said. He said troops responded to Thai fire with rocket-propelled grenades.
 
A witness in one Thai village said occasional gun shots and shelling could still be heard although the heaviest fighting had stopped. The clash began around dawn and lasted about three hours, a Cambodian defence ministry spokesman said.
 
As a precaution, the Thai government evacuated about 7,500 villagers from the area. Cambodian authorities evacuated about 200 families, according to local officials.
 
Fragile ceasefire
 
The fighting is the most severe since three Thais and eight Cambodians were killed and dozens of people wounded over Feb.  4-7 in the bloodiest fighting in nearly two decades.
 
As part of a ceasefire deal, Thailand and Cambodia agreed on Feb. 22 to allow unarmed military observers from Indonesia to be posted along their border.
 
But that arrangement brokered by a meeting of Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers in Jakarta has yet to be put in place. Thailand’s military said international observers were not required.
 
Chhay Mao, a major in the Cambodian army stationed at Preah Vihear temple, said the fighting had not spread to the ancient clifftop Hindu temple. “It is quiet at Preah Vihear now but we are ready at our side,” he said.
 
An international court awarded the temple to Cambodia 49 years ago but both countries lay claim to a 4.6 sq km (1.8 sq mile) patch of land near it.
 
The temple, known as Preah Vihear in Cambodia and Khao Phra Viharn in Thailand, sits on land that forms a natural border and has been a source of tension for generations.
 
Thailand and Cambodia have been locked in a standoff since July 2008, when Preah Vihear was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, which Thailand opposed on grounds that the land around the temple had never been demarcated.
 
But the reasons behind this year’s deadly skirmishes are murky.
 
Some analysts say hawkish Thai generals and their ultra-nationalist allies, who wear the Thai king’s colour of yellow at protests, may be trying to create a crisis that would bring down Thailand’s government or create a pretext to stage a coup and cancel elections expected in June or July.
 
Others say it may be a simple breakdown in communication at a time of strained relations.
 
Thailand and Cambodia are both members of the ASEAN regional grouping which plans to form a European-style single market by 2015.
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