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South Korea vows to protect islands

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A South Korean protester burns a North Korean flag during a rally against the north's attack on Yeonpyeong island (AP)

South Korea’s president has pledged to boost security around islands near the site of a North Korean artillery attack as the North warned of more retaliation for any “reckless military provocations”.

Seoul and Washington also increased pressure on China to use its influence on ally North Korea to ease soaring tensions that erupted after an exchange of fire on Tuesday that left four South Koreans dead, including two civilians. China urged both sides to show restraint.

The North’s bombardment of a tiny South Korean island along a disputed maritime frontier has alarmed world leaders including US president Barack Obama, who reaffirmed plans for joint manoeuvres with Seoul in the Yellow Sea starting on Sunday.

“We should not let our guard down in preparation for another possible North Korean provocation,” South Korea’s president Lee Myung-bak said during an emergency meeting on security and economic repercussions from the attack, according to Yonhap news agency.

The US-South Korean drills involving aircraft carrier USS George Washington, although previously scheduled, are sure to infuriate North Korea. The North made no specific mention of those exercises in its statement but warned that its military would “launch second and third strong physical retaliations without hesitation if South Korean warmongers carry out reckless military provocations”.

The North’s statement said Washington was to blame for South Korean artillery exercises near disputed waters which prompted the North to respond with its artillery barrage on Yeongpyeong island.

Washington “should thoroughly control South Korea”, it said. The warning was issued by North Korea’s military’s mission at the truce village of Panmunjom and was carried by the country’s official Korean Central News Agency.

The Obama administration urged China to rein in North Korea, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, saying: “We really think it’s important for the international community to lead, but in particular China.”

Chinese premier Wen Jiabao called on all sides to show “maximum restraint” over recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula and said his country opposed all forms of military provocation. Mr Wen also urged the international community to work to ease tensions, repeating Chinese calls for renewed six-nation talks aimed at persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programmes.

Residents of Yeongpyeong who evacuated the island and began arriving at the South Korean port of Incheon on Wednesday told harrowing tales of fiery destruction and narrow escapes. About 10 homes suffered direct hits and 30 were destroyed in the barrage, according to a local official who spoke by telephone from the island just seven miles from the North Korean shore. About 1,700 civilians live on Yeonpyeong alongside South Korean troops stationed there.

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