Fighting spreads along Thai-Cambodian border

PHANOM DONG RAK, Thailand (AFP) – Thai and Cambodian troops opened a new front Tuesday in their deadliest fighting in recent history, despite mounting diplomatic pressure to end clashes that have left 13 dead.

Tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee their homes on both sides as heavy weapons fire pounded the jungle frontier, shattering a fragile ceasefire that had held since February.

AFP - Cambodian soldiers are seen travelling in a military truck in Oddar Meanchey province near the border with Thailand.

The two armies exchanged fire Tuesday near the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple, which has been the focus of strained relations between the neighbours since it was granted UN World Heritage status in 2008.

Fighting erupted near the ruins at 1:30 pm (0630 GMT) and lasted for 30 minutes, said Thai army spokesman Colonel Prawit Hookaew.

"They fired artillery and mortar and we retaliated," he said.

Cambodia blamed Thailand for starting the clash.

The fighting took place 150 kilometres (90 miles) east of two other disputed temple complexes that have been the scene of hostilities which have left at least 13 soldiers dead since Friday.

In February 10 people were killed near the Preah Vihear temple, prompting a UN appeal for a permanent ceasefire.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday urged Thailand and Cambodia to show restraint and said Washington was "deeply concerned".

She said that the United States had engaged directly with Thai and Cambodian officials in hopes of ending the violence, without providing further details.

The neighbours agreed in late February to allow observers from Indonesia into the area near Preah Vihear.

But the Thai military has since said the monitors are not welcome and they have not been deployed.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said on Tuesday that Bangkok would review its policy towards Cambodia including trade, border checkpoints and cooperation at all levels, but would not sever diplomatic ties.

Kasit is due to hold talks with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, whose country is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional bloc, on Thursday in Jakarta.

"Thailand will inform him that Thailand agrees to international observers but Cambodian troops must withdraw from Preah Vihear," Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.

The World Court ruled in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia, but both countries claim ownership of a 4.6-square-kilometre (1.8-square-mile) surrounding area.

A total of eight Cambodian soldiers and five Thai troops have died in the latest fighting further west along the border, while another Cambodian soldier is missing.

Thailand said nearly 26,000 people had been evacuated on its side of the border and were being housed in 22 shelters. Three districts -- Phanom Dong Rak, Kap Choeng and Prasat -- have been declared emergency areas.

More than 22,000 people have been displaced by the fighting on the Cambodian side, authorities have said.

Apisan Boonpradub, director of Thailand's Phanom Dong Rak hospital, said 65 Thai soldiers have been injured so far but no civilians have been wounded.

"The majority of them were hurt from the impact of explosions. Most of the patients we are treating at the moment were injured in the fighting," he said.

Cambodia has accused Thailand of using spy planes and poisonous gas in the recent fighting -- which Bangkok has strongly denied.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Monday said he hoped the border situation would improve before he meets his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen at a regional summit on May 7-8.

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