South Korean soldier dies as North fires at island: Report

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SEOUL - One South Korean soldier was 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 was shrouded in smoke, and its residents were fleeing by fishing boat. Television reports said civilians were also wounded.

The South returned fire, targeting artillery positions on the North’s coast, and also deployed fighter jets to the island, the Defence Ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said.

Houses on Yeonpyeong, which lies 12 km off North Korea’s coast, were in flames.

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. A presidential spokesman said he urged the ministers to take measures to prevent an escalation.

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

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.

Colonel Lee Bung Woo, spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quoted by Yonhap as saying that the North fired dozens of rounds, some of which landed on Yeonpyeong, and the South fired 80 rounds. South Korea’s military was placed on its highest peacetime alert, he said.

The Blue House, South Korea’s presidential home and 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, the Blue House said.

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