S.Korea holds live-fire drill as UN diplomacy breaks down

20th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

South Korea held a live-fire drill on a border island and scrambled fighter jets Monday, despite North Korean threats of retaliation, as UN diplomacy on the crisis broke down.

The defence ministry said the 90-minute drill began around 2:30 pm (0530 GMT). "Our armed forces are now on alert and fighter jets are on airborne alert," a ministry spokesman said.

Yonhap news agency said two destroyers had also been deployed in the Yellow Sea south of the disputed border.

It said the South fired 1,500 rounds from various guns including K-9 self-propelled howitzers, 105mm howitzers and 81 mm mortars, a figure which officials declined to confirm.

An emergency UN Security Council meeting failed to agree a statement on the crisis, and Russia warned that the international community was now left without "a game plan" to counter escalating tensions.

But in an apparent sign of compromise over its nuclear ambitions, the North agreed with US troubleshooter Bill Richardson to allow the return of UN atomic inspectors, CNN reported.

North Korea used a November 23 live-fire exercise by South Korean marines to justify a bombardment of Yeonpyeong that killed four people including civilians and damaged dozens of homes.

It threatened another attack, if the latest drill went ahead, that would be "deadlier... in terms of the powerfulness and sphere of the strike".

No attack was reported as of late Monday but Seoul was on high alert.

"The military must take every possible step to cope with possible provocations by North Korea," the South's Defence Minister Kim Kwan-Jin said.

President Lee Myung-Bak ordered all government officials on emergency standby.

The United States, which had some 20 troops on the island backing up Monday's drill, stood by the South's right to self-defence. Japan urged North Korea not to take any "provocative action" in response.

The North disputes the Yellow Sea border drawn by United Nations forces after the 1950-53 war. It claims the waters around Yeonpyeong, where shells land after firing exercises, as its own.

Its military appeared to be preparing for a counter-attack, removing covers from coastal artillery guns and forward-deploying some batteries, a military source told Yonhap earlier in the day.

CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer, who is travelling with Richardson in Pyongyang, said there were signs of deal-making in nuclear matters.

North Korea had agreed with Richardson to let inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency return to its Yongbyon nuclear complex, Blitzer said.

It had also agreed to allow 12,000 fuel rods to be shipped to an outside country, and to the creation of a military commission and hotline between the two Koreas and the United States, Blitzer said.

Apart from its longstanding plutonium operation, the North's disclosure last month of a new uranium enrichment plant sparked fears of a potential new source of bomb-making material.

Richardson, a veteran negotiator with the North, was due to brief reporters in Beijing later Monday.

At the UN, China fended off Western demands that its ally North Korea be publicly condemned for the November 23 artillery assault, diplomats said.

They said it even rejected a proposed statement that did not mention North Korea or the name of Yeonpyeong.

"Now we have a situation with very serious political tension and no game plan on the diplomatic side," said Russia's UN envoy Vitaly Churkin.

China called for calm.

"No one has any right to preach or promote conflict or war, and no one has any right to cause bloodshed between the peoples in the north and south of the peninsula," Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told reporters when asked to comment on the drill.

Cui neither directly criticised the South nor warned the North against retaliation. But a Russian foreign ministry source said the South's decision to hold its drill risked escalating tensions.

Seoul, which was outraged last month by the first shelling of civilian areas since the war, rejected criticism.

"As a sovereign nation, it is our just right to stage a military exercise for the defence of our territory... nobody can intervene," President Lee said.

The South says its exercise is a routine defensive drill, with guns pointed away from the North and shells landing 10 kilometres (six miles) south of the maritime border in place for six decades.

Officials say they must assert control over waters near the border to prevent the North's attempt to re-draw the line closer to Seoul.

© 2010 AFP

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