North bombards island base with shells
North Korea fired around 100 artillery shells into Yeonpyeong Island off the west coast, killing two South Korean marines and wounding 19 people, and the South Korean Navy returned fire.
The North Korean barrage began at 2:34 p.m., and South Korea responded 13 minutes later, with North Korean fire ceasing around 3:42.
“I ran outside my house when my windows shattered from the blasts,” said Lee Jong-sik, a resident of the island for over 50 years. A blast could be heard every five minutes, Lee said, which he said were the first attacks ever on the island.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that several buildings on the island were damaged by North Korean shells. Witnesses said fires spread quickly, and residents were evacuated to schools and safe houses.
Two marine fatalities were confirmed by the military, and 16 soldiers were wounded along with three civilians. Soldiers and civilians were brought to hospitals. The wounded soldiers are currently at the Armed Forces Capital Hospital on the mainland in Gyeonggi, and the military believes there may be more military or civilian casualties.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff put the whole country on highest military alert. The initial shots came from Gaemori, a protruding strip of land off western North Korea, where a coastal artillery base is located. After the attacks began, Seoul dispatched F-16 fighter jets to the area, and South Korean government officials were called to an emergency meeting with President Lee Myung-bak at an underground bunker beneath the presidential compound. Lee was quoted by his spokeswoman earlier as saying: “Respond firmly, but make the best efforts not to worsen the situation.”
The city of Incheon gave an order for all residents on Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong Islands to evacuate at 4:00 p.m. The islands are the closest South Korean regions to North Korea and are home to 5,570 citizens in total. All 1,780 islanders of Yeonpyeong have evacuated to the mainland.
At 6:05 p.m. the Blue House released a statement saying that South Korea would “severely punish additional North Korean provocation” and that the North Korean government should take responsibility for the incident. Minutes later, North Korea’s official news agency released a statement saying that South Korea started firing first at around 1 p.m. “If South Korean forces invade 0.001 millimeters of our waters,” it said, “we will not desist and will continue our military attacks mercilessly.”
Roughly 1,000 South Korean marines and sailors are stationed on Yeonpyeong Island. An annual nationwide military drill, called the Hoguk exercise and includes U.S. forces, began yesterday. North Korea has described the annual drill as a dress rehearsal for an invasion of the North. U.S. Forces Korea said that there were no American soldiers on the island at the time of the attack. The joint drill was conducting firing exercises yesterday morning near the island. North Korea sent messages to the South Korean government all morning, according to officials, criticizing the drill. The South Korean government explained in responses that the exercises were not an attack on North Korea.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said that North Korea had attacked the island with the “joint exercises as an excuse.” The Ministry of Unification said they would be putting off Red Cross talks between North and South Korea that were scheduled for tomorrow. “We feel that it is not appropriate at this time to hold the talks,” said a Unification Ministry official.
The White House issued a statement saying, “The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement.” Neighboring China voiced a cautious note, with a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Hong Lei, saying that the “truth of the situation had to be figured out” and that both sides of the Korean Peninsula should “do more to contribute to peace.” Japanese press quoted a government official saying that yesterday’s incident could have a bigger effect than the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March.
According to Reuters, stocks in Hong Kong posted the biggest single-day percentage loss in six months in light of the attack.
The clashes took place 11 days after North Korea showed a visiting U.S. nuclear scientist centrifuges that it said were being used to enrich uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons.
By Christine Kim [email@example.com]
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