Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Koreas in border artillery clash

North Korea fired scores of artillery shells at a South Korean island today, killing two soldiers, in one of the heaviest attacks on its neighbour since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The barrage was close to a disputed maritime border on the west of the divided peninsula and the scene of deadly clashes in the past.

The South fired back and sent a fighter jet to the area after the attack. It said it was conducting military drills in the area at the time but said it had not been firing at the North.

The attack came as the reclusive North, and its ally China, presses regional powers to return to negotiations on its nuclear weapons programme and revelations at the weekend Pyongyang is fast developing another source of material to make atomic weapons.

It also follows moves by leader Kim Jong-il to make his youngest, but unproven, son his heir apparent, leading some analysts to question whether the bombardment might in part have been an attempt to burnish the ruling family's image with the military.

"Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can't see very well because of plumes of smoke," a witness on the island told YTN Television before the shelling, which lasted about an hour, ended.

YTN said at least 200 North Korean shells hit Yeonpyeong, which lies off the west coast of the divided peninsula near a disputed maritime border. Most landed on a military base there.

Photographs from Yeongyeong island, just 120km west of Seoul, showed columns of smoke rising from buildings. Two soldiers were killed in the attack, 17 wounded. Three civilians were also hurt.

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, who has pursued a hard line with the North since taking office nearly three years ago, said a response had to be firm following the attack. But he made no suggestion the South would retaliate further, suggesting Seoul was taking a measured response to prevent things getting out of hand.

The North has a huge array of artillery pointed at Seoul that could decimate an urban area home to around 25 million people and cause major damage to its trillion dollar economy.


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