KANTHARALAK, Thailand (Reuters) - Thai villagers began trickling back to their homes near a disputed stretch of the border with Cambodia on Thursday in a sign of easing tension after deadly clashes over an ancient temple.
But both Thai and Cambodian forces remained on alert a day after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said the four days of fighting that began last Friday constituted “war.”
Both sides have promised maximum restraint and deny beefing-up their forces, but witnesses on the Thai side saw tanks, armored vehicles and fighter jets on the move.
Thailand and Cambodia blame each other for the clashes near the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple that killed at least three Thais and eight Cambodians. At least 34 Thais and 55 Cambodians were wounded, according to statements from both sides.
The temple ruins, perched on a cliff overlooking the north Cambodian plain, have been a thorn in the side of relations between the neighbors since the 1950s.
The issue has blown up in recent years partly because of bitter divisions in domestic Thai politics with a pro-establishment “yellow shirt” activist movement whipping up nationalist feelings.
The governor of Thailand’s Si Sa Ket province, Somsak Suvarnsujarit, said several thousand villagers had left temporary shelters and returned home.
“Many of those who come from villages further from the fighting range opted to go back,” Somsak said, adding that in all, about 21,000 villagers had left their homes.
“Those in the villages right next to the scene of fighting were asked to stay back until it is really safe. For now, the situation remains uncertain and we have not got the all clear from the army.”
In Cambodia’s northern frontier areas, schools and temples have been turned into shelters for several thousand displaced people.
The Cambodian and Thai foreign ministers are heading to New York where they are due to present their cases to the U.N. Security Council on Monday.
Hun Sen, in a speech in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, ruled out bilateral talks with Thailand saying the Thais could not be trusted. He said Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was guilty of war crimes and called him a “cheat.”
“This is war,” he said.
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya also cast diplomacy aside, calling Hun Sen a ”naughty boy.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu on Thursday called for calm and a peaceful resolution, saying Beijing has maintained close contact with both Cambodia and Thailand.
“China calls for both parties to maintain calm and restraint and avoid an escalation of the situation,” Ma told reporters in Beijing.
Though the guns have been silent for three days and attention is turning to diplomatic efforts to restore calm, more forces have been heading to the area and witnesses spotted two Thai F-16 fighter jets flying within 10 km (6.2 miles) of Preah Vihear, for about 30 minutes.
The Thai air force said it was a routine exercise.
“We are not flexing muscles or provoking anyone,” a spokesman said. “It was a regular air patrol.”
Several Thai army tanks and other armored vehicles were heading toward the area on Thursday, a witness said, a day after Thailand moved up about 20 tanks.
Thai army officials said the tanks were not reinforcing in the area, but the message to Cambodia was clear.
Still, the reasons behind the fighting are unknown.
Some analysts say hawkish Thai generals and nationalist allies may be trying to create a crisis that would bring down Thailand’s government or create a pretext to stage a coup and cancel elections expected this year.
Others say it may be a breakdown in communication at a time of strained relations over Cambodia’s flying of a national flag in the disputed area and laying of a stone tablet inscribed with “Here is Cambodia.”
Thailand and Cambodia are both members of the ASEAN regional grouping which plans to form a European-style single market by 2015. The 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations has urged bilateral talks.
The temple, known as Preah Vihear, or “Mountain of the Sacred Temple,” in Cambodia and Khao Phra Viharn in Thailand, sits on a triangular wedge of plateau on an escarpment that forms a natural border.
Both sides have been locked in a standoff since July 2008, when Preah Vihear was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, which Thailand opposed on grounds that territory around the temple had never been demarcated.
The International Court of Justice in 1962 awarded the temple to Cambodia, which uses a century-old French map as the basis for its territorial claims. But the ruling failed to determine ownership of the scrub next to it.
Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, and Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Martin Petty and Yoko Nishikawa