중앙데일리

Yongsan fire claims lives of six

Police blame squatters who attacked them with Molotov cocktails, acid

Jan 21,2009
The top of a building where protesters were squatting is engulfed in flames as police approach, in Seoul early yesterday. Five protesters and one policeman were killed in the blaze. [REUTERS]
Five protesters and a member of a police SWAT team died and 24 others were hospitalized following a violent standoff at a construction site in central Seoul early yesterday.

According to police, protesters took over a five-story structure near the Kukje building and Yongsan train station at 5:30 a.m. Monday, in opposition to ongoing redevelopment of the area. Some squatters demanded higher compensation for their houses and stores, which are to be demolished for a massive development project by the nation’s construction giants - Samsung C&T Corporation, Daelim and Posco.

Police said the demonstrators built a watchtower on the rooftop and armed themselves with Molotov cocktails, bottles of acid, bricks and slingshots. Police issued an ultimatum to the protesters to move out by Monday night or be forcibly removed. Around 6:45 a.m. yesterday, a crane lifted a container box carrying the SWAT teams.

“When the SWAT teams tried to enter the watchtower around 7:26 a.m., the demonstrators sprayed paint thinner and threw Molotov cocktails,” Baek Dong-san, chief of Yongsan Police who commanded the operation, said during a press briefing. “The watchtower caught fire and police withdrew. We managed to put out the fire by 8 a.m. and found five bodies, including one police officer.”

A further search yielded one more body. Yongsan police said that of the 24 others who were injured during the stand-off, 18 were police officers.

Kim Nam-hun, a 30-year-old SWAT team member of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, was killed during the operation, police said. The other bodies were not identified, but the National Institute of Scientific Investigation said fingerprints should allow identification by tomorrow.

Prime Minister Han Seung-soo issued a statement at 3 p.m. promising that the government will do everything to prevent a recurrence of what he called an “extremely regretful and unfortunate” incident.

“No matter what had happened, I express my deep condolences as the prime minister,” Han said. “The government will investigate the incident thoroughly and speedily. From the illegal occupation to forcible eviction, the truth will be laid bare.”

“Anyone who broke the law will be sternly punished,” Han said. “Unlawful, violent action will not be tolerated under any circumstance, no matter who has committed it.”

The Blue House said Han’s statement is the Lee administration’s official position.

The Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office has formed a team of seven prosecutors and 13 investigators to look into the incident. Because police were involved, prosecutors will be in charge.

The police operation resulted in arrest of 25 squatters, and the prosecution is investigating if the National Alliance of Squatters systemically planned the violent demonstration. Of those arrested, only seven actually live or own stores in the area and are eligible for compensation. The rest were members of the group.

According to the Yongsan District Office, the construction site used to be occupied by 434 stores and 456 households. About 80 percent have received compensation and moved out. Plans call for the construction of three skyscrapers for residential and commercial use.

The squatters’ association held a press conference in the afternoon, claiming that 200 SWAT team members were mobilized to arrest 30 demonstrators. Water cannons and iron pipes were used to subdue the squatters, they said, calling the incident “murder by law enforcement authorities.” The association said members will hold a candlelight vigil at 7 p.m. in front of the Yongsan train station and demanded an apology from President Lee Myung-bak.

Baek, the Yongsan police chief, said the police had no choice but to try to end the demonstration. “They were a direct threat to public safety, shooting golf balls and marbles with slingshots and throwing Molotov cocktails at adjacent buildings, causing fires,” Baek said. “We could not allow the illegal actions any further, so we mobilized the force to evict them.” Police said the demonstrators launched 150 Molotov cocktails, 40 bottles filled with hydrochloric acid, 10,000 bricks and 700 golf balls and marbles at police and passersby.

At a separate press conference, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said its chief Kim Seok-ki, slated to become the commissioner-general of the National Police Agency, has given the green light to the dispatch of SWAT teams.

The opposition Democratic Party demanded yesterday that Kim be fired as well as Won Sei-hoon, minister of public administration and security, who is designated to become the National Intelligence Service director.

The Democrats said the police’s unreasonable use of force caused the deaths. The Grand National Party held an emergency meeting to discuss the incident.

The National Assembly’s public administration and security committee will hold a session this morning to hear from police about their actions.


By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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