Thousands of Thai troops, backed by tanks and artillery, were airlifted into a bloody border zone Sunday to secure disputed territory from Laos before peace talks begin.
The military also confirmed the downing of a Thai bomber by Laotian anti-aircraft fire Saturday. It was the second Thai warplane lost in 11 weeks of fighting that has killed hundreds of men on both sides.
The 3rd Army Region command said 3,000 troops were airlifted from regional headquarters at Pitsanulok into the disputed border area 77 miles to the northeast. About 10 tanks and some artillery also were moved in the airlift conducted by about 50 helicopters.
Talks Start Tuesday
Military observers said the army wants to consolidate its border position before scheduled peace negotiations begin Tuesday in Bangkok between a Laotian military delegation and Thai officials.
Artillery duels continued Sunday over ownership of a 27-square mile strip of jungle-covered hills on the Thai-Laotian border, 270 miles north of Bangkok.
"We have to reinforce and rotate fresh troops into the area," said Col. Rithi Rangaputhi, 3rd Army region spokesman.
"This is part of changing tactics. We do not reject (peace) talks, but they are still on our soil and we must push them out," said Rithi.
The dispute between Thailand and Laos began last May when Thais began logging the area's virgin jungle. Laotian forces moved into the area and reinforced a network of bunkers and tunnels that Thai villagers said were left by Thai Communists about 10 years ago.
Fighting erupted in November when Thai troops tried to drive out the Laotians. Both nations are basing their claim to the area on disputed maps stemming from a 1907 treaty between Thailand and France.
Radio Laos said the downed Thai bomber was one of eight warplanes attacking Laotian positions.
"Saturday, the armed forces and people (of Laos) shot down one Thai OV-10 bomber aircraft while it and eight F-5 fighter-bombers were intruding in Lao territory to barbarously bomb and strafe Ban Nakok village some 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the (Thai-Lao) border," Radio Laos said.
Rithi confirmed the shooting but said the bomber was on a reconnaissance mission.
Three Thai helicopters, an OV-10 and two F-5E jets braved heavy anti-aircraft artillery Sunday in a fruitless search for the downed bomber and its two pilots, who were seen parachuting from the aircraft by Thai ground troops, Rithi said.
"About 400 Lao troops have been killed and up to 600 wounded in the fighting so far," Rithi said while declining to disclose Thai casualties.
An Interior Ministry official at a Thai district near the disputed area said civilians were moving to the homes of relatives farther inland.