South Korea threatens retaliation after North Korea shells island
South Korea has warned North Korea it would "sternly retaliate" to any further provocations after dozens of shells were fired at a South Korean island.
Two South Korean marines were killed and 17 others injured, as well as three civilians, after North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells onto a Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow sea, 50 miles off the South's northwest coast in an area close to a disputed sea border.
The attack, which comes days after it emerged that North Korea was pressing ahead with its illegal nuclear programme, marks a serious further escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
A presidential statement said the shelling “constitutes a clear armed provocation.”
“Furthermore, its reckless shelling of civilian targets is unpardonable.
“North Korean authorities must take responsibility.”
The incident is believed to have been sparked by South Korean military exercises in the area, which the North had objected to.
Officials said “dozens” of artillery rounds had landed on Yeonpyeong. Other reports suggested around 200 shells could have been fired in the attack which began at 2.34pm local time (7.34am GMT).
F-16 fighter jets were scrambled and South Korean land-based forces returned fire on the North as civilians were evacuated to emergency bunkers, according to witnesses quoted by the Seoul-based cable news television channel YTN.
Pictures from the channel showed plumes of smoke rising from the island, which is the largest in a clutch of smaller islands, with a population of less than 1,300 people.
“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. “People are frightened to death and shelling continues as we speak," the witness added.
The US issued a statement saying it "strongly condemns" the attack, urging it to halt its "belligerent action".
Naoto Kan, Japan's prime minister, said he had ordered his ministers to prepare for any eventuality.
"I ordered (ministers) to make preparations so that we can react firmly, should any unexpected event occur," Mr Kan said.
"We will make preparations so that whatever happens, we will be able to deal with it."
Russia called for both sides to avoid any escalation of violence, while China, the North’s closest international ally, said it was “concerned” over the situation.
“We hope the relevant parties do more to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” said a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, adding that China was still seeking information on the clash. "The situation needs to be verified," he said.
The islands were the scene of three skirmishes between the navies of North and South Korea in 1999, 2002 and most recently in 2009 when a North Korean patrol ship was set on fire by South Korean gunfire.
The attack comes after nearly two years of deteriorating relations between the two Koreas, which reached a nadir last March after the sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, with the loss of 46 lives.
South Korea has since cut off almost all humanitarian aid to the North, a near bankrupt-state that has been under tight international sanctions since conducting a second nuclear bomb test in 2009 in defiance of UN agreements.
The North has also been facing a degree of political turmoil this year as their ailing leader Kim Jong-il prepares the ground for a dynastic succession that will see power being handed to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.