Thai and Cambodian troops stood on high alert on Tuesday after clashing in disputed land around a 900-year-old mountaintop temple, as both sides face intense regional diplomatic pressure to lay down arms.
Soldiers on both sides held fire but dug in their positions, bracing for more fighting after four days of deadly clashes in the 4.6-sq-km (two-sq-mile) contested area surrounding the Preah Vihear temple claimed by both Southeast Asian neighbors.
Thailand and Cambodia blame each other for clashes that have killed at least two Thais and eight Cambodians since Friday and energized ultra-nationalist Thai "yellow shirt" protesters demanding that Thailand's government step down.
In Cambodia's Praeh Vihear province, soldiers allowed journalists through military checkpoints near the 11th century Hindu temple. They said there was no sign of fighting since early Monday, but that the situation was tense.
In Cambodia's northern frontier areas, pigs and chickens roamed deserted villages. Schools and temples were turned into makeshift refugee centers, and naked children played as people collected firewood or queued for handouts of rice and water.
On the Thai side, villages such as Ban Sangam in Si Sa Ket province about 7 km (4.3 miles) from the border were eerily quiet, aside from the occasional sound of military trucks.
Somsak Suvarnsujarit, governor of Si Sa Ket province, said 16,654 people had been evacuated.
"There is still a lot of uncertainty and we will only let people move back into villages when there is a clear sign from the army that situation has returned to normal," he said.
The Thai government said 30 Thai soldiers and 4 villagers had been wounded so far. At least 55 Cambodians have been wounded, according to figures provided by Cambodia's government.
No UN Security Council meeting planned
Reasons behind the fighting remain murky. Some analysts say hawkish Thai generals and nationalist allies may be trying to topple Thailand's government or create a pretext to stage another coup and cancel elections expected this year.
Others say it may be a breakdown in communication channels 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 "This is Cambodia."
Diplomatic pressure is building. China, a Southeast Asian regional grouping and Washington have urged both sides to show restraint. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the UN Security Council to convene an urgent meeting and to deploy peacekeepers, accusing Thailand of "repeated acts of aggression."
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva wrote to the Security Council, saying Cambodia was trying to internationalise a bilateral issue and accusing its troops of launching attacks that were "pre-meditated and well-planned in advance." He said the Thai troops had no choice but to engage in self-defense.
In New York, the Security Council indicated on Monday it would wait to see what came of mediation efforts by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which both Cambodia and Thailand are members.
Council president, Brazilian Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, said the 15 council members "took cognizance" of the letters but did not schedule a formal meeting on the dispute.
ASEAN dispatched Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to Cambodia on Monday and to Thailand on Tuesday in a bid to defuse the crisis. "On the eve of an ASEAN community in 2015, guns must be silent in Southeast Asia," he said in Phnom Penh.
The dispute threatens to worsen hostility between Thai political factions ahead of this year's expected election.
The "yellow shirts" group of protesters, whose crippling rallies helped bring Abhisit to power, have turned against him in recent weeks, calling for a tougher line against Cambodia.
In 2008, they occupied state offices for three months and blockaded Bangkok's main airport until a court expelled a government allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a step that led to Abhisit taking power.
Thailand's cabinet is expected on Tuesday to impose the Internal Security Act so security forces could stop the protesters from occupying government buildings in Bangkok in demonstrations planned for Friday.