Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia asked the United Nations Security Council on Sunday to convene an urgent meeting to “stop Thailand’s aggression” after a third day of cross-border shelling by both sides.
The Cambodian government said the shelling had damaged part of an 11th-century Hindu temple that is claimed by both nations and has been the focus of tension and periodic military clashes since 2008.
Each side accused the other of starting the latest fighting, which has claimed at least two lives and caused a number of injuries since it broke out on Friday. No deaths were immediately reported on Sunday.
“Cambodians always open fire first,” said the Thai Army spokesman, Col. Sansern Keowkamnderd. “We will cease fire when the Cambodians stop firing at us.”
The Cambodian government also said Thai military aircraft had flown near the border, an escalation of previous encounters, but Colonel Sansern denied the report.
It was not clear how seriously the temple, Preah Vihear, had been damaged. A Unesco World Heritage site, the temple was slightly damaged by shelling in the last serious clash a year ago.
“A wing of our Preah Vihear temple has collapsed as a direct result of the Thai artillery bombardment,” a Cambodian military commander was quoted as saying in a press statement by the Quick Reaction Unit of the Cambodian Council of Ministers.
The statement also quoted the unidentified commander as saying the Thai side had used “gas shells” as it fired 130-millimeter artillery rounds at Cambodian soldiers, but it did not elaborate.
The dispute involves conflicting century-old maps and a ruling in 1962 by the International Court of Justice awarding the temple to Cambodia. New tensions were set off in July 2008 when Unesco named the temple a World Heritage site and placed it inside Cambodia.
Tensions along the border have become entwined in Thailand’s political disputes, with the faction known as the yellow shirts accusing the government of failing to defend Thai sovereignty.
The issue has become a rallying cry in recent weeks for the yellow shirts, who have begun a new sit-in near the prime minister’s office, where they staged a blockade for more than six months in 2008.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand asserted that the government wanted a peaceful resolution, but that it would do what was needed to defend national borders.
“I insist that the dispute on the border issues must be solved through nonviolent means,” he said, but added, “If our sovereignty is violated, we have to protect it ultimately.”
Anger was stoked four days ago when a Cambodian court sentenced two Thai nationalists to prison terms of six and eight years on a charge of trespassing and spying on the border region.
Passions had already been aroused in Thailand this year after the Cambodian side erected a plaque near the temple that read, in English: “Here! is the place where Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory on July 15, 2008, and withdrew at 10:30 A.M. on Dec. 1, 2010.”
Responding to Thai demands, the Cambodians removed the plaque, but shortly afterward replaced it with another that read: “Here! is Cambodia.”
Following more Thai complaints, that plaque was also removed and photographs of the shattered red and yellow tablet were displayed in the Thai press.