Koreans clash over disputed island


Pillars of smoke billow from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border with North Korea (AP)

North and South Korea have battered each other with artillery fire in one of the most serious confrontations since their war ended nearly 60 years ago.

It began with a barrage from the North aimed at an island on the disputed border between the two which set dozens of buildings on fire, sent civilians fleeing for shelter and killed two soldiers.

The clash put South Korea’s military on high alert. Sixteen South Korean soldiers and three civilians were injured and the extent of casualties on the northern side was unknown but sources said they were “considerable”.

The skirmish began when Pyongyang warned the South to halt military drills in the area, according to South Korean officials. When it refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters, albeit away from the North Korean shore, the North retaliated by bombarding the small island of Yeonpyeong, which houses South Korean military installations and a small civilian population.

South Korea responded by firing self-propelled howitzers and dispatching fighter jets. The entire skirmish lasted about an hour.

North Korea fired dozens of rounds of artillery in three separate barrages that began in mid-afternoon, while South Korea returned fire with about 80 rounds.

Island residents fled to 20 shelters on the island and sporadic shelling ended after about an hour.

Each side has threatened the other over another attack.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who convened an emergency security meeting shortly after the initial bombardment, said that an “indiscriminate attack on civilians can never be tolerated.”

“Enormous retaliation should be made to the extent that (North Korea) cannot make provocations again,” he said.