BANGKOK – Fighting between Cambodian and Thai soldiers erupted Sunday evening for a third day along a disputed border near an 11th century temple, shattering a shaky cease-fire.
The two sides exchanged mortar and artillery fire across the darkened mountainous border for over two hours. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.
"Cambodian forces have fired artillery that have landed close to Thai positions," Gen. Pol Vey, commander of Cambodia's front-line forces, told Deum Ampil Radio, a station close to the government.
The area of fighting was about 3 kilometers from the historic Preah Vihear temple, a U.N. World Heritage Site that belongs to Cambodia under a 1962 World Court ruling disputed by many Thais. There were unconfirmed reports that the fighting was spreading closer to the temple.
The fiercest border clashes in years erupted Friday between troops along the border and a second round of heavy fighting occurred Saturday, despite agreements to halt the clashes. Sporadic artillery fire in those clashes left at least five people dead — one civilian and one soldier from Thailand and one civilian and two soldiers from Cambodia.
Both sides have blamed each other for the fighting, which on Saturday also caused minor damage to the Preah Vihear temple near a strip of disputed land that Thai nationalists have seized on as a domestic political issue.
"Cambodian troops started firing into Thai territory and we fired back," said Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd. He said the weaponry used Sunday by the Cambodian side included Soviet-made BM-21 rocket launchers which have a range of at least 12 miles (20 kilometers).
A Cambodian government spokesman, Phay Siphan, accused the Thais of firing first.
"The fighting broke out as Thai forces entered the Cambodian side," he said. "They walked into Cambodian territory and began the fighting."
Sunday's clash started just hours after commanders stationed on both sides of the border met in the afternoon and said they would continue to respect a Saturday cease-fire and pledges not to deploy more troops to the area.
Officials on both sides said some villagers who had fled but then returned to their homes Sunday afternoon were again evacuated.
Tensions between the Southeast Asian nations have risen in recent days because of demonstrations in the Thai capital, Bangkok, demanding that the government oust Cambodians from land near the Preah Vihear temple.
Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called earlier Sunday for a peaceful solution to the border dispute, but warned that Thai soldiers would defend national sovereignty if attacked.
"I insist that the dispute on the border issues must be solved through nonviolent means," Abhisit said in his weekly address to the nation. "Thailand never thought of invading anyone, but if our sovereignty is violated, we have to protect it ultimately."
The Preah Vihear issue was virtually dormant until Cambodia successfully applied in 2008 to UNESCO to have the temple declared a World Heritage Site, an application backed by the government in power in Thailand at the time.
Thai nationalists have argued that the action threatened Thailand's sovereignty, though their protests were seen mainly as a way of rallying criticism to help oust the Thai government. Both countries' leaders, defending their patriotic credentials, then built up military forces at the border.
While a full-blown war is unlikely, nationalist passions are inflamed in both countries, with no clear way to settle the long-standing territorial dispute surrounding the temple, built during a time when Cambodia's Khmer empire ruled over much of Thailand.