Seoul, South Korea: South Korea says two marines have been killed and 16 others injured in a North Korean bombardment of a South Korean island near the countries` disputed western sea border.
South Korea`s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday that it returned fire and scrambled fighter jets in response. It said the "inhumane" attack on civilian areas violated the 1953 armistice halting the Korean War. The two sides technically remain at war because a peace treaty was never negotiated.
The skirmish came amid high tension over North Korea`s claim that it has a new uranium enrichment facility, and just six weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il unveiled his youngest son Kim Jong Un as his heir apparent.
The United States, which has tens of thousands of troops stationed in South Korea, condemned the attack and called on North Korea to "halt its belligerent action," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in Washington. He said the United States is "firmly committed" to South Korea`s defense, and to the "maintenance of regional peace and stability."
The North`s artillery struck the small South Korean-held island of Yeonpyeong, which houses military installations and a small civilian population and which has been the focus of two previous deadly battles between the Koreas.
One South Korean marine was killed, three were seriously wounded and 10 slightly wounded, a Joint Chiefs of Staff official said. Island residents were escaping to about 20 shelters in the island while sporadic shelling continued, the military official said.
North Korea`s supreme military command threatened to continue military strikes against South Korea if it violated their disputed sea border "even 0.001 millimeter," according to the North`s official Korean Central News Agency.
The firing came amid South Korean military drills in the area. North Korea`s military had sent a message to South Korea`s armed forces early Tuesday to demand that the drills stop, but the South continued them, another military official said.
During the drills, South Korean marines on the island shot artillery toward southern waters, away from North Korea, the official said.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing military rules.
South Korean military official Lee Hong-ki said the North`s premeditated bombardments struck civilian areas and were "inhumane atrocities." There are about 30 small islands around the Yeonpyeong, and tension runs high in the area because of its proximity to North Korea. Yeonpyeong is known for its crab fishing.
After the North`s barrages, South Korea responded by firing K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers, military officials said, but declined to say whether North Korean territory was hit.