PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AP) — Hundreds of Cambodian soldiers were camped Wednesday at a cliff-top Khmer temple in the line of fire from deadly border skirmishes with Thailand, as the Cambodian leader raised the temperature in the conflict by declaring it a “real war.”
Cambodia’s government denies that it deploys soldiers at the millennium-old World Heritage site — seeking to avoid the impression it would deliberately put the temple in danger or use it as a shield — and has accused Thailand of seriously damaging the complex.
However, Associated Press journalists who visited the temple Wednesday found hundreds of Cambodian soldiers deployed in and around the sprawling temple compound, which was fortified by sandbagged bunkers.
They also saw areas where shrapnel chipped away at some of the sanctuary’s ancient walls, but no signs of large structural damage. The U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, says it plans to send a team to makes its own assessment of the damage.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday that the damage constituted a war crime — indicating he has no intention of backing down, despite a fragile truce that has quieted guns for two days.
“Thai Prime Minister Abhisit (Vejjajiva) must be held responsible for war crimes,” said Hun Sen, adding that the conflict was not just an armed clash but a “real war.”
Hun Sen is a canny politician known for his use of heated rhetoric to put pressure on his adversaries.
Each country blames the other for starting fighting last Friday which set off several days of artillery duels, leaving at least eight people dead. Dozens of soldiers were wounded, and thousands of civilians evacuated to safety, before fighting eased Monday.
Thailand accuses Cambodia of stationing soldiers at the temple and firing across the border at Thai soldiers. Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday it “strongly rejects such a slanderous assertion.”
“There has never been and there will never be Cambodian soldiers at the temple of Preah Vihear. This has always been a place for worship and tourism,” the statement said, adding that the only security presence at the temple is a small number of policemen with light weapons to ensure safety at the site.
Dressed in military camouflage, some of the troops at the temple played cards its shaded walls. Some rested on cots or hammocks while others poured new sandbags and stacked them up.
“We’re here to defend it,” said one soldier who was inside a sandbagged bunker that was covered with a military tarp. “When the fighting stops, we will go.” The soldier declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media. He said he and other soldiers were stationed several miles (kilometers) away but moved to the temple Friday when fighting erupted.
Weapons were visible around the complex, including rifles and rocket launchers leaned against temple walls. An 81-mm mortar tube was positioned in a pit pointed at Thailand, across a ravine from the Cambodian frontier.
Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd defended his earlier remarks about Cambodian military presence at the temple.
“It’s obvious,” he said. “You can take a look at the photographs, even the ones taken by them. There’s definitely military presence at Preah Vihear. Their soldiers fired at us from there.”
“We never intended to attack Preah Vihear,” he added. “We would never want to damage such a valuable cultural and religious site. The firing only occurred when they fired at us from that location.”
Hun Sen said that he told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a phone conversation Tuesday night that the countries were involved in “a real war now.” He said he asked Ban to send U.N. peacekeepers or observers to the area.
The Cambodian leader also rejected peace talks with Bangkok and taunted Thailand’s Abhisit for refusing to refer the dispute to a third party.
“I would like to tell Abhisit that if you are not a thief, don’t be afraid of a judge,” he said.
Preah Vihear temple, built between the 9th and 11th centuries, sits atop a 1,722-foot (525-meter) cliff in the Dangrek Mountains along a disputed border zone between Thailand and Cambodia. It has been a source of tension and fueled nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border for decades.
It is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, but it was later used as a Buddhist sanctuary. The temple is 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.
The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over adjacent areas has never been clearly resolved.
In 2008, UNESCO backed Cambodia’s bid to list the temple as a World Heritage site. Thailand initially supported the bid but then reneged after the move sparked domestic outrage and protests. Some Thais worried that the distinction would undermine their claims to a strip of surrounding land.
Both sides sent troops to the border, resulting in several small clashes over the years. But the latest skirmishes were the most intense yet, marking the first time artillery and mortars have been used, according to soldiers and locals.
The latest fighting comes as Thailand’s embattled government faces protests from ultranationalists at home who say it hasn’t done enough to protect Thailand’s sovereignty in the border region.