BANGKOK, Thailand -- Three days of border fighting with mortars and rockets by Thailand and Cambodia has killed at least 10 soldiers and forced thousands of villagers to flee, while both sides try to dominate nearby ancient Hindu temple ruins which are potentially lucrative tourist sites.

Three Cambodian soldiers and three Thai troops died on Friday, followed by three more Cambodian soldiers' deaths and one more Thai army fatality on Saturday, officials said.

No deaths were reported on Sunday.

Thailand and Cambodia repeatedly blamed the other for firing first.

The three days of fighting were the worst clashes since February when four days of similar battles killed 10 soldiers and prompted the United Nations Security Council to call for restraint.

In New York during the weekend, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon again called on both countries to stop fighting and agree to a verifiable ceasefire.

Cambodia said Thai forces fired 75 mm and 105 mm shells "loaded with poison gas" and flew reconnaissance flights deep into Cambodian territory, but no evidence was provided and Bangkok denied both charges.

In February, Bangkok denied using cluster bombs but later reluctantly admitted to firing several cluster-loaded bombs at Cambodia.

Thailand is a non-NATO military ally of America, and is bigger, wealthier, and better armed than Cambodia, but Cambodian soldiers are considered tougher fighters on the ground, honed by decades of internal guerrilla warfare.

Cambodia's military leaders include Hun Manet, who received his diploma in 1999 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Hun Manet is a two-star general and deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces infantry, and director of the Defense Ministry's U.S.-backed counter-terrorism department.

He is the eldest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen who was a Khmer Rouge guerrilla regiment commander under Pol Pot when they successfully fought against U.S. troops in the early 1970s during America's regional Vietnam War.

Thailand is perceived as jealous of Cambodia's plan to bring tourists to visit scenic Preah Vihear, which is a cliff-top, 11th century, Hindu temple's stone ruins on the disputed border.

Preah Vihear was part of a network of ancient temple sites linked to Cambodia's nearby slave-built Angkor Wat complex.

The latest battles occurred near two smaller temple ruins, Ta Krabey and Ta Moan, in Surin province along the disputed border, about 125 miles (200 kms) west of larger Preah Vihear temple.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice in the Hague disagreed with Thailand's claim over Preah Vihear and awarded the ruins to Cambodia.

Bangkok said that decision did not include a disputed three-square-mile (4.6-square-kms) plot of land surrounding the temple.

During the past several years, Thais occupied the disputed plot to control a main entrance to the ruins and erect nearby tourist shops, restaurants, and transportation facilities.

Meanwhile, in 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) endorsed Cambodia's bid to grant the temple World Heritage status.

The could turn Preah Vihear into a money-making tourist attraction for Cambodia as well, especially when the Cambodians modernize a path up the steep cliff as an alternative entrance to the temple.

During the past few months, Indonesia was brought in to broker talks between the two Buddhist countries.

Cambodia supported Indonesia's involvement, but it was spurned by Thailand which wants to keep the squabble between Bangkok and Phnom Penh.

Indonesia is currently the rotating chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is a consensus-based political and economic group.

"When Indonesia observers come, they should have nothing to do with the border negotiations, and Cambodia can not proceed with the [Preah Vihear tourism] management plan because we have to finish the border demarcation first," Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said on Saturday.

The fresh clashes coincide with fears expressed by Thailand's media and opposition politicians that Bangkok's coup-minded military is preparing a putsch to install a puppet regime because the generals fear a possible return of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thailand's U.S.-trained military ousted Mr. Thaksin in a bloodless 2006 coup.

Mr. Thaksin has based himself mostly in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail sentence for corruption during his five-year elected administration.

One year ago, thousands of Mr. Thaksin's Red Shirt supporters staged a nine-week insurrection in Bangkok by barricading streets in the heart of the capital, while demanding fresh elections to bring back Mr. Thaksin.

After devastating urban battles, the Red Shirts were crushed by the army, resulting in 90 deaths, most of them civilians.

Bangkok's current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who took office in December 2008, has enjoyed strong military support while allowing the generals to arrange costly and controversial large-scale weapons purchases, including a dozen Swedish Gripen warplanes, a submarine, armored personnel carriers, and other weaponry.

Mr. Abhisit said he would stage nationwide elections in June or July.

The polls could result in another anti-Thaksin coalition government, or military intervention to block Mr. Thaksin's possible return.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)