PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian and Thai troops battled for two hours Friday along a disputed stretch of their shared border, trading artillery fire that killed at least two people near an 11th century temple that is a U.N. World Heritage Site.
The fighting was some of the fiercest in years between the two southeast Asian countries. Tensions between the neighbors have been exacerbated in recent days by pressure from powerful Thai nationalist groups, which have been staging protests in Bangkok urging the government to reclaim the land.
While a cease-fire was quickly reached and full-blown war unlikely, the territorial dispute remains volatile, with nationalist passions inflamed on both sides — and no clear way to settle it.
One Thai villager was killed and four Thai troops were slightly injured, Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said. In Cambodia, privately owned Bayon TV reported that one Cambodian soldier was killed and five were wounded.
Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told reporters Cambodian forces captured four Thai soldiers, a claim denied by Bangkok. He said Cambodia would file a complaint to the U.N. Security Council over the “Thai invasion.”
The fighting erupted near the Preah Vihear temple, which belongs to Cambodia. Thailand claims a small patch of land near the temple.
Sporadic artillery fire lasted for more than two hours, but the battle ended after Thailand’s defense minister called Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to the private Cambodian Television Network. Thailand’s Sansern confirmed the cease-fire.
The United States urged both sides “to exercise maximum restraint and take all necessary steps to reduce tensions and avoid further conflict,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement.
Maj. Prom Sarouen, commander of the Cambodian police unit guarding the temple, said both sides used artillery and heavy machine guns in the clash. He said some shells had fallen on the temple grounds but did not know if they had caused any damage.
Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said troubles began when Thai troops ignored warnings to stop crossing into Cambodia and then sought to remove a Cambodian flag from a small temple in the disputed territory. He said the Cambodians shot into the air and the Thai soldiers returned fire.
Thailand disputed that account. Sansern said the clash was triggered by artillery shots fired from the Cambodian side.
“We don’t want to say that it was intentional. It could have been caused by a misunderstanding,” Sansern told The Associated Press, adding that Thai troops returned fire as a warning.
A Thai TV station showed villagers fleeing for safety during the clash.
Relations between the two countries have been contentious for years, including a series of small but sometimes deadly skirmishes over the demarcation of the border near Preah Vihear.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the temple belongs to Cambodia, but the decision rankled Thailand.
The issue was virtually dormant until Cambodia successfully applied in 2008 to UNESCO to have the temple declared a World Heritage site, an application backed by the government in power in Thailand at the time.
Thai nationalists have argued that the action threatened Thailand’s sovereignty, though their protests were seen mainly as a way of rallying criticism of the Thai government. Both countries’ leaders, defending their patriotic credentials, then built up military forces at the border.
Last week, the nationalist group that seized Bangkok’s airports two years ago gathered in the capital to pressure Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva over the land dispute.
The rally by the People’s Alliance for Democracy — also known as the Yellow Shirts — and an associated fringe group raised tensions in a country still recovering from political violence last year in which about 90 people died.
The groups said they will escalate their protest on Saturday.