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North Korea's troops on combat alert

Latest update : 2009-03-09

As US and South Korean troops began joint annual military drills on Monday, North Korea said it had put its armed forces on full combat readiness in response to the exercises, heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula.

AFP - North Korea put its military on combat alert Monday as US and South Korean forces started a major joint exercise which the communist nation has branded as a prelude to invasion.

The North, which is preparing what it calls a satellite launch, also warned that any attempt to shoot down the rocket would be treated as an act of war.

It then severed its last communications channels with South Korea, leaving more than 700 people unable to cross the heavily-fortified border to a joint industrial complex at Kaesong just to its north.

The moves follow a threat last week against South Korean civilian airlines using the North's airspace, which has forced them to re-route flights.

South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak was briefed Monday by his top security officials on the latest statements.

Pyongyang has repeatedly accused Seoul and Washington of using the annual exercises, which this year will last until March 20, as a pretext to launch an attack on it -- a claim denied by the United States and the South.

In a statement carried by the state Korean Central News Agency, the Korean People's Army described the exercises as "unprecedented in the number of the aggressor forces involved and in their duration."

"The KPA Supreme Command issued an order to all service persons to be fully combat-ready," the statement said.

"A war will break out if the US imperialists and the warmongers of the South Korean puppet military hurl the huge troops and sophisticated strike means to mount an attack."

The North added in a separate statement that it would cut off North-South military communications during the exercises, as maintaining normal channels would be "nonsensical."

South Koreans cannot cross the border without approval by North Korea via the military communications lines.

"Our government regrets" the measure, unification ministry spokesman Kim Ho-Nyoun said in Seoul, calling on Pyongyang to withdraw it immediately.

The joint exercise involves a US aircraft carrier, 26,000 US soldiers and more than 30,000 South Korean troops.

It comes at a time of high tension with the South and growing pressure on the reclusive North to end its nuclear weapons programme and drop any plans to test its longest-range missile.

Although North Korea says it is preparing to fire a rocket for a satellite launch, Seoul and Washington believe the real purpose is to test a Taepodong-2 missile that could theoretically reach Alaska.

The North Korean army's General Staff said it would retaliate "with prompt counter-strikes by the most powerful military means" if there was any attempt to intercept the satellite.

Japan said last week that it was prepared to shoot down any rocket headed toward its territory, and Admiral Timothy Keating, who commands the US Pacific Command, said interceptor ships were ready "on a moment's notice."

The new US envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, cautioned against any launch.

"We've indicated our position to them on the question of the missile launch, or satellite launch, or whatever they call it. We think it's very ill-advised," he said Saturday on arrival in South Korea for talks.

He also urged Pyongyang to cease threats against South Korean planes near its airspace. "I think everyone would be a lot happier if they would drop that line of rhetoric."

The North is angry at South Korea's Lee, a conservative who has scrapped his predecessors' policy of offering virtually unconditional aid to Pyongyang.

Analysts suspect it is also taking a tougher stance as it competes for US President Barack Obama's attention with other world hotspots.

The North has previously warned that the "slightest" conflict during the exercises could rapidly escalate, and fears of a border clash have grown since January 30 when it scrapped peace accords with Seoul and warned of war.

Date created : 2009-03-09