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North and South exchange fire near disputed sea border

Tensions between North and South Korea intensified Wednesday after the two nations exchanged fire at a disputed sea border, government officials said.


AFP - North and South Korea traded artillery fire Wednesday near their disputed sea border, the scene of deadly naval clashes in the past, ratcheting up tensions between the two countries, officials said.

The North's land-based artillery batteries fired into waters near the border shortly after 9:00 am (0000 GMT), a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

"Our military immediately fired back in response," a Seoul presidential official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The incident came a day after the North declared a "no sail zone" around the flashpoint border, which was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999 and 2002.

Another clash in November left a North Korean patrol boat in flames.

The official said the North's artillery rounds landed north of the border, while Seoul's forces fired at the shells while they were in the air. No one was injured and no damage was caused.

The official refused to say what types of weapon were used or how many rounds were exchanged.

"Our military fired at the shells in the air," he said. "Our field manual states that we are supposed to target any incoming flying objects."

Yonhap news agency said the North's shells landed near the South Korean-controlled island of Baengnyeong in the Yellow Sea.

It said Marines based on the island responded by firing shoreline Vulcan cannons with a range of 3-4 kilometres (1.8-2.5 miles).

"When the North fired, some 20-30 columns of water shot up into the sky," the agency quoted one source as saying.

The sea border has been a constant source of tension since it was drawn by United Nations forces at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The North insists it should be drawn further to the south.

On Tuesday Seoul officials said the North had declared a two-month ban on shipping in two zones around the border. The announcement heightened speculation of military exercises or missile launches by the North in the area.

South Korea called an emergency meeting of security and other ministers in response to the exchange of fire, a presidential official told AFP.

The brief but intense battle last November broke out when a North Korean patrol boat crossed the line and refused to turn back despite warnings, according to Seoul.

The firefight left the North's boat retreating in flames and one South Korean craft with bullet holes in its hull. There was no information on any North Korean casualties, while the South's crewmen were unhurt.

Last month the North warned South Korean ships to avoid the border area, saying its coastal artillery would stage firing exercises in response to "reckless military provocations" from the South.

The communist North has sent mixed messages in recent months.

The sanctions-hit state is pressing to upgrade or restart joint business projects with the South, while its military at the same time has issued threats of war.

On Sunday the military lashed out at South Korea's vow to launch a preemptive strike to thwart any nuclear attack, calling it "an open declaration of war."

The threat was sparked by comments last week from the South's defence minister, who said Seoul would have to launch such a strike if an atomic attack from its neighbour was imminent.

"North Korea will likely continue such low-intensity military provocations like this in the next few months," Baek Seung-Joo, of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses, told AFP.

"But it is unlikely to take things to the extreme, as it in general wants to maintain economic cooperations with South Korea."

Baek said the North wants to avoid naval clashes since its ships are outgunned by the South.


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