Tension builds amid artillery drill


South Korea's K-9 self-propelled guns fire during a military exercise (AP)

South Korea fired live artillery in a 90-minute drill from a front-line island and launched fighter jets to deter attacks after North Korea warned of catastrophic retaliation for the manoeuvres.

There was no immediate sign of any North Korean military response to the drill.

The South evacuated hundreds of residents near its tense land border and sent residents of islands near disputed waters into underground bunkers amid soaring fears of war.

The exercises came nearly nearly a month after the North responded to earlier manoeuvres by shelling Yeonpyeong island, killing two marines and two civilians in its first attack targeting civilian areas since the 1950-53 Korean War. It had said it would respond even more harshly to any new drills from the Yellow Sea island.

Hours later, Seoul’s Defence Ministry said the drills were under way on Yeonpyeong, a tiny enclave of fishing communities and military bases about seven miles from North Korean shores. A witness heard the sounds of explosions begin Monday afternoon, pause about an hour later and then start up again.

The North considers waters around Yeonpyeong its own territory. Similar drills on November 23 sparked the North’s artillery barrage, after what it said were clear warnings to the South to halt the firing. The North warned of a “catastrophe” if South Korea went ahead with new drills.

South Korea’s military said ahead of Monday’s drills that it will “immediately and sternly” deal with any provocation by the North. Fighter jets flew over South Korean airspace on a mission to deter North Korean attacks, a Defence Ministry official said.

Residents, local officials and journalists on Yeonpyeong and four other islands were ordered to evacuate to underground shelters because of possible attacks by North Korea, Ongjin County government spokesman Won Ji-young said.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council failed to agree on a statement to address rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.

US Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States and other council members demanded that the council condemn North Korea for two deadly attacks this year that have helped send relations to their lowest point in decades. But diplomats said China strongly objected.

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