In Cambodia's temple battleground, a fragile peace

PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia Tue Feb 8, 2011 3:30am EST

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PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (Reuters) - Monks pray and soldiers smoke cigarettes and doze in hammocks at the 900-year-old temple at the heart of Thailand and Cambodia's deadly border clashes, but nobody dares predict the conflict is over.

Piles of sandbags and newly built bunkers surround the 11th century Preah Vihear temple, and while some Cambodian soldiers take the chance to relax, others clutch heavy-duty machineguns.

Felled trees, blackened craters and the charred remnants of fires scar the landscape after four days of fierce gun battles and shelling sent thousands of villagers fleeing and turned this tranquil mountain plateau into a chaotic combat zone.

"Things are calm, but it's still very tense," said Lieutenant Tek Saran. "We don't know when this situation will become normal again."

The soldiers echoed comments by their long-serving prime minister Hun Sen that Preah Vihear, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was badly hit in the Thai bombardment.

"The Thais have destroyed this temple, it's a world heritage site and they shot right at it," said a local commander, Major Chhay Mao.

But Reuters journalists who viewed the site said the damage was minimal and the structure remained fully intact. Small piles of rubble were seen, with parts of the stone walls blackened by rocket-propelled grenades that landed nearby.

The area was empty of civilians, most of whom fled rustic villages nestled in the sprawling jungles that Cambodia and Thailand have bickered over for decades.

An international court ruling awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but the jurisdiction of the 4.6-sq-km (2-sq-mile) of scrub around it was never agreed, leading to a number of military skirmishes over the years.

The latest fighting is the fiercest in the disputed border region since the early 1990s when Cambodia's Khmer Rouge rebel forces operated in the area.

SANCTUARY FROM SHELLING

A handful of young, saffron-robed monks walked around the Preah Vihear temple where they sought refuge from artillery shells that rained down on either side of the disputed frontier in the Dangrek Mountains.

"In the last few days I've been running for cover," said Seng Ly, a 19-year-old monk. "The Thais are Buddhists too -- why did they attack our temple? I'm really afraid."

About 200 battle-hardened Cambodian troops guarded areas surrounding the temple, a former Khmer Rogue stronghold during Cambodia's years of civil war.

Several thousand soldiers were on standby in a military base some 10 km (6.2 miles) further down rugged, winding paths.

A new, partially-constructed road leading up to the temple was dotted with craters from artillery fire,

At the foot of the cliff, cows roamed potholed roads lined with empty wooden houses and deserted villages. Clothes hung from washing lines and many windows were left open, indications of a quick evacuation.

In Anglong Veng, a town about 15 km (9 miles) from the Thai-Cambodia frontier, residents were braced for further clashes. Shops and businesses were shuttered and truckloads of infantry soldiers rumbled toward the border, some stacked with boxes of instant noodles for emergency rations.

Many soldiers were permanently based at Preah Vihear, several accompanied by their children who stayed behind as thousands fled in a exodus of villagers carrying only a few personal belongings.

My father is a soldier, so I stayed here," said Oun Ya, 13. "I'm not scared."

Oun Ya's friend, Ol Pros, 15, said he had never been to school and had spent most of his life in Preah Vihear. His future, he said, was already decided.

"When I grow up, I'm going be a soldier," Ol Pros said as men in camouflage outfits, Kalashnikov rifles strung over their shoulders, piled up sandbags and dug trenches.

"I have to wait until I'm 18. Then I'll join the army."

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Jason Szep and Andrew Marshall)

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