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BREAKING NEWS: Artillery firing on Korea border

A South Korean soldier walks by displays of mock North Korea's Scud-B missile, back right, and other South Korean missiles at Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. North Korea shot dozens of rounds of artillery onto a populated South Korean island near their disputed western border Tuesday, military officials said, setting buildings on fire and prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble fighter jets.
 South Korea returns fire after North Korea fired artillery shells onto South Korean island near disputed western border.

(November 23, Soull, Sri Lanka Guardian) North Korea has fired dozens of artillery shells onto a South Korean island, killing at least one person and triggering an exchange of fire as southern armed forces went on their highest state of alert.

In what appeared to be one of the most serious border incidents since the 1950-53 war, South Korea's government convened in an underground war room during the incident on Tuesday.

South Korea said it has scrambled F-16 fighter jets to assess the situation on Yeonpyeong island.

The firing came after North Korea's disclosure of an apparently operational uranium enrichment programme - a potential way of building a nuclear bomb - which is causing serious alarm for the United States and its allies.

Some 50 North Korean shells landed on the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong near the tense Yellow Sea border, damaging dozens of houses and sending plumes of thick smoke into the air, YTN television reported.

Naval exercise

Steve Chao, Al Jazeera's Seoul-based correspondent, said that the island is the base of South Korea's second fleet that has been attacked by North Korea in the past.


"There was a joint South Korea-US naval exercise in the area yesterday," our correspondent said.

One South Korean Marine, who was part of a contingent based permanently on Yeonpyeong Island, was killed, the military said.

The military said 13 Marines were injured and YTN said two civilians were also hurt.

"A North Korean artillery unit staged an illegal firing provocation at 2:34 pm (0534 GMT) and South Korean troops fired back immediately in self-defence," a ministry spokesman said.

"A Class-A military alert issued for battle situations has been imposed immediately," the spokesman said.

Lee Jong-Sik, an island resident, told YTN: "At least 10 houses are burning. I can't see clearly for the smoke. The hillsides are also on fire. We were told by loudspeakers to flee our homes."

Yeonpyeong lies just south of the border declared by United Nations forces after the inconclusive war six decades ago, but north of the sea border declared by Pyongyang.

The Yellow Sea border was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and last November.

Tensions have been acute since the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which Seoul says was the result of a North Korean torpedo attack. Pyongyang has angrily rejected the charge.

In late October, North and South Korean troops exchanged fire across their Cold War border, coinciding with a state of high alert for the South's military in the buildup to the G20 summit of world leaders in Seoul earlier this month.

High tension

Lee Myung-Bak, the South Korean president, convened an emergency security meeting in response to the latest incident, a presidential spokesman said.

"He is now in an underground war room to discuss possible responses with ministers of related agencies and national security advisers.”



Lee urged the officials to "handle it (the situation) well to prevent further escalation", the spokesman said.

The firing comes after Kim Jong-Un, the little-known youngest son of Kim Jong-Il, was officially recognised as number two in North Korea's political system, clouding outsiders' view of its military and nuclear intentions.

The new crisis erupted as a US special envoy headed to China on Tuesday to seek its help in curbing North Korea's new nuclear project, revealed to US experts who described a sophisticated programme to enrich uranium.

Stephen Bosworth has also visited South Korea and Japan this week to discuss the disclosure, which US officials say would allow the isolated North to build new atomic bombs.

Bosworth, speaking in Tokyo, ruled out a resumption of stalled six-nation talks - aimed at disarming the North of nuclear weaponry in return for aid and other concessions - while work continues on the enrichment programme.

China chairs the talks and is also the North's sole major ally and economic prop. It has come under pressure to play a leading role in resolving the latest nuclear dispute.


Concern in China

China appealed for the six-party talks to resume after the new revelations, and expressed concern over Tuesday's cross-border firing.

"We have taken note of the relevant report and we express concern over the situation," Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, said.

"We hope the relevant parties do more to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," he said. Russia also warned against an escalation of tensions on the peninsula.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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