North Korea fires at South Korean island, two dead (Second Lead)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SEOUL - Two South Korean marines were killed and at least 13 injured Tuesday when North Korea fired artillery at a South Korean island near the two countries’ border in the Yellow Sea, South Korean news reports said.

Yeonpyeong island, which lies 12 km off North Korea’s coast, was shrouded in smoke as its homes and forests were set ablaze. Its 1,600 residents were told to evacuate, and some fled by fishing boat.

At least four island residents were hurt as at least 50 shells fell on the island, a spokesman for Incheon city, to which Yeonpyeong belongs, told the Yonhap News Agency.

The North fired about 100 shells and the South returned fire, firing 80 shells and targeting artillery positions on the North’s coast, the Defence Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said. The exchange of fire lasted about an hour and prompted South Korea to deploy fighter jets to Yeonpyeong. Its military was placed on its highest peacetime alert.

About 1,000 South Korean soldiers are stationed on the island, which has been a source of tension between the two neighbours because of its location and rich fishing grounds, and naval clashes have occurred nearby.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak called an emergency meeting in an underground bunker of ministers with security-related portfolios to discuss how to respond to the fire as an official at the presidential office called the attack a “clear military provocation” and warned the North that it would face “stern retaliation” if it launched further attacks.

The presidential office said Seoul was examining whether the North fired in retaliation for a South Korean military drill taking place on the western coast and involving about 70,000 troops. Pyongyang had protested the annual exercise in a message it sent to Seoul earlier Tuesday, it said.

Residents, meanwhile, described chaos on the island, which was without electricity after the attack.

“I was staying at my home when I was surprised by sounds of bomb explosions,” a 35-year-old man identified only as Kim told Yonhap. “As I stepped out of my home, the entire village was already turned into a sea of fire.

“I’m now staying in a shelter along with other villagers, but I’m still shaking with fear.”

A Unification Ministry official told Yonhap that the South was considering evacuating its citizens from North Korea.

Few foreigners visit isolated, Stalinist North Korea, but South Koreans work there at an industrial park operated by both Koreas at the border town of Kaesong and at the Mount Kumgang resort.

Relations between Seoul and Pyongyang have deteriorated this year after a South Korean warship sank in March in the Yellow Sea also near the inter-Korean border. Forty-six sailors were killed. Seoul blamed Pyongyang for their deaths, but the North has denied involvement.

North Korea’s nuclear programme has also been a concern, particularly after news at the weekend that it had a large, new uranium-enrichment facility. It said it is also building a light-water reactor.

The two Koreas remain technically at war after a ceasefire and not a peace treaty ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

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