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S Korea drills 'bring brink of war'

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Fire flares up near a South Korean Marine's K-9 self-propelled gun after the area was hit by North Korean artillery shells (AP)

North Korea has lashed out at planned US-South Korean military drills, saying they were pushing the peninsula to the “brink of war”.

North Korea’s state news agency said drills involving South Korean forces and a US nuclear powered supercarrier in waters south of a skirmish on Tuesday between the rival Koreas were a reckless plan by “trigger-happy elements” and the manoeuvres targeted the North.

“The situation on the Korean peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war,” the dispatch from the Korean Central News Agency said.

The comments came as a US general headed to an island devastated by North Korean artillery to show solidarity with American ally Seoul. General Walter Sharp, the US military commander in South Korea, was visiting Yeonpyeong.

Four South Koreans – two marines and two civilians – were killed in the hour-long clash when North Korea unleashed a hail of artillery on Yeonpyeong island.

Marines with M-16 rifles patrolled a sea wall, while others gazed toward North Korea from a guard post on a cliff. Technicians worked to restore communication lines and several stray pigs growled near destroyed houses.

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak on Thursday ordered reinforcements for about 4,000 troops on Yeonpyeong and four other Yellow Sea islands, as well as top-level weaponry for the soldiers and upgraded rules of engagement that would create a new category of response when civilian areas are targeted. He also sacked his defence minister amid intense criticism over lapses in the country’s response to the attack.

In scenes reminiscent of the Korean War 60 years ago, dazed residents of Yeonpyeong island have foraged through blackened rubble for pieces of their lives and lugged their possessions down eerily deserted streets strewn with bent metal.

“It was a sea of fire,” Lee In-ku said, recalling the flames that rolled through the streets of the island that is home to military bases as well as a fishing community famous for its catches of crab. The spit of land had only six pieces of artillery.

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