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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

BREAKING NEWS: Thai and Cambodia Troops Exchange Border Gunfire

Thai and Cambodia Troops Exchange Border Gunfire

Wed 15 Oct 2008, 7:59 GMT

PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (Reuters) - Thailand urged its nationals to leave Cambodia on Wednesday after troops from both countries exchanged gunfire when a long-simmering border dispute turned violent.

Each side accused the other of firing first at a stretch of the border near the 900-year-old Preah Vihear temple that both sides claim.

The International Court of Justice awarded the 1.8 square miles (4.6 sq km) patch of scrub to Cambodia in 1962, a ruling that has rankled in Thailand ever since.

The issue has become highly politicised again in Thailand, with opposition protesters who for months have laid siege to the government adopting it as one of their causes.

Tensions have been high since July, when 2,000 soldiers faced off only yards apart in trenches dug into a hillside that until 10 years ago was under the control of remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot's guerrilla army.

On Monday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to turn the area into a "death zone" unless the Thais withdrew troops by midday Tuesday.

A Reuters photographer at the scene said he had to take cover amid rocket and small-arms fire when fighting erupted on Wednesday.

"I heard gunfire all over the place," Chor Sokunthea said by telephone. "One rocket flew from Thailand over my head and landed. I have to find a safe place to hide."

There was no immediate word on casualties.

The Thai military said it was ready for war and the Foreign Ministry told Thais to "think twice" before visiting Cambodia, only five years after a nationalist mob torched the embassy in Phnom Penh in an argument about another ancient Hindu temple.

"Thai businessmen who have no need to be in Cambodia now, please rush back to Thailand," Thai Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat told reporters on Wednesday.

"We have our evacuation plan ready," he added.

The Thai stock market dropped 2.2 in the immediate aftermath of news of Wednesday's firing, but it was not immediately clear if it was a direct consequence.

Singapore and Indonesia have asked both sides to show restraint.

(Writing by David Fox; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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