Preah Vihear: Hundreds of Cambodian soldiers were camped at a cliff-top Khmer temple Wednesday in a deployment that apparently has put the World Heritage site into the line of fire in deadly border skirmishes with Thailand.
Cambodia`s government denies that it deploys soldiers at the millenium-old Preah Vihear temple — seeking to avoid the impression it would deliberately put the site in danger or use it as a shield — and has accused Thailand of seriously damaging the complex in an artillery barrage.
However, reporters who have reached the temple have found hundreds of soldiers bunkered there. They have seen areas where shrapnel chipped away at some of the sanctuary`s ancient walls, but no signs of large structural damage. The UN culture agency, UNESCO, says it plans to send a team to makes its own assessment of the damage.
The skirmishes that started last Friday at the disputed frontier killed at least eight people and wounded dozens of soldiers before easing Monday.
Thailand accuses Cambodia of stationing soldiers at the temple and firing across the border at Thai soldiers.
Cambodia`s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday it "strongly rejects such a slanderous assertion."
"There has never been and there will never be Cambodian soldiers at the temple of Preah Vihear. This has always been a place for worship and tourism," the statement said, adding that the only security presence at the temple is a small number of policemen with light weapons to ensure safety at the site.
On Wednesday, however, hundreds of Cambodian soldiers were seen by Associated Press journalists deployed in and around the sprawling temple compound, which was fortified by sandbagged bunkers.
Dressed in military camouflage, some played cards inside the temple`s shaded walls. Some rested on cots or hammocks while others poured new sandbags and stacked them up.
"We`re here to defend it," said a soldier at the temple, who was inside a sandbagged bunker that was covered with a military tarp. "When the fighting stops, we will go." The soldier declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media. He said he and other soldiers were stationed several kilometers (miles) away but moved to the temple Friday when fighting erupted.
Weapons were visible around the complex, including rifles and rocket launchers leaned against temple walls. An 81-mm mortar tube was positioned in a pit pointed at Thailand, across a ravine from the Cambodian frontier.
Thai army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd defended his earlier remarks about Cambodian military presence at the temple.
"It`s obvious," he said. "You can take a look at the photographs, even the ones taken by them. There`s definitely military presence at Preah Vihear. Their soldiers fired at us from there."
"We never intended to attack Preah Vihear," he added. "We would never want to damage such a valuable cultural and religious site. The firing only occurred when they fired at us from that location."
Preah Vihear temple, built between the 9th and 11th centuries, sits atop a 1,722-foot (525-meter) cliff in the Dangrek Mountains along a disputed border zone between Thailand and Cambodia. It has been a source of tension and fueled nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border for decades.
It is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, but it was later used as a Buddhist sanctuary. The temple is revered partly for having one of the most stunning locations of all the temples constructed during the Khmer empire — the most famous of which is Angkor Wat.
The World Court awarded the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but sovereignty over adjacent areas has never been clearly resolved.
In 2008, UNESCO backed Cambodia`s bid to list the temple as a World Heritage site. Thailand initially supported the bid but then reneged after the move sparked domestic outrage and protests. Some Thais worried that the distinction would undermine their claims to a strip of surrounding land.
Both sides sent troops to the border, resulting in several small clashes over the years. But the latest skirmishes were the most intense yet, marking the first time artillery and mortars have been used, according to soldiers and locals.
The latest fighting comes as Thailand`s embattled government faces protests from ultranationalists at home who say it hasn`t done enough to protect Thailand`s sovereignty in the border region.
"World Heritage sites are the heritage of all humanity and the international community has a special responsibility to safeguard them," UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said in a statement.