South Korea says it has returned fire after North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at one of its border islands, killing two marines. The South's military was placed on its highest non-wartime alert after the shells landed on Yeonpyeong island. The North said it did not fire first in the incident. Two South Korean marines and four civilians were also injured. Analysts say this is one of the most serious clashes since the Korean War ended without a peace treaty in 1953. There have been occasional cross-border clashes since, but the latest incident comes at a time of rising regional tension. North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il is thought to be ill and trying to ensure the succession of his youngest son.
A spokesman for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korean shells had started falling in the waters off the island of Yeonpyeong at 1434 (0534 GMT). At least 50 landed directly on the island, most hitting a South Korean military base there. The South's military immediately fired back some 80 shells in self-defence, Col Lee Bung-woo added. A resident on the island told the AFP news agency that dozens of houses were damaged by the barrage, while television pictures showed plumes of smoke rising above the island. "Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can't see very well because of plumes of smoke," a witness on the island told YTN television station. "People are frightened to death." Local government spokesman Yoon Kwan-seok said the shelling lasted for about an hour and then stopped abruptly. Four residents were hurt.
"The whole of Yeonpyeong island was blacked out following the North Korean attacks," he was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency. "All of the island's 1,600-odd residents were evacuated to a shelter." The South Korean military has also deployed fighter jets to Yeonpyeong, which lies about 3km (1.8 miles) south of the disputed inter-Korean maritime border and 100km (60 miles) west of the Korean Peninsula. Later, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak warned North Korea that his country would "sternly retaliate against any further provocations". "North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong island constitutes a clear armed provocation. Furthermore, its reckless shelling of civilian targets is unpardonable," his office said in a statement. "North Korean authorities must take responsibility."