US aircraft carrier on way to Korean waters

09:58, November 25, 2010      

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A UNITED States aircraft carrier group set off for Korean waters yesterday, a day after North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire.

South Korea said the bodies of two civilians had been found on an island shelled by North Korea in Tuesday's attack, which also killed two South Korean marines and wounded 18 others.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it one of the "gravest incidents" since the Korean War.

As South Korean troops remained on high alert and buildings continued to burn, exhausted evacuees streamed into the port city of Incheon after spending the night in underground shelters, embracing tearful family members and telling harrowing tales of destruction.

North Korea said the firing was in reaction to military drills conducted by South Korea in the area at the time but Seoul said it had not been firing at North Korea.

The nuclear-powered USS George Washington, which carries 75 warplanes and has a crew of more than 6,000, left a naval base south of Tokyo and would join exercises with South Korea from Sunday to the following Wednesday in the Yellow Sea, US officials in Seoul said.

"This exercise is defensive in nature," US Forces Korea said yesterday. "While planned well before yesterday's unprovoked artillery attack, it demonstrates the strength of the South Korea-US alliance and our commitment to regional stability through deterrence."

North Korea said South Korea was driving the peninsula to the "brink of war" with "reckless military provocation" and by postponing humanitarian aid, its official KCNA news agency said.

The skirmish began when North Korea warned South Korea to halt military drills near their sea border. When Seoul refused and fired artillery into disputed waters, North Korea retaliated by shelling Yeonpyeong Island, which houses South Korean military installations as well as civilians.

South Korea responded by unleashing its own barrage from K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers and scrambling fighter jets.

Officials in Seoul said there could be considerable North Korean casualties but the exact toll wasn't clear.

North Korea's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper featured a photo of leader Kim Jong Il and other senior officials visiting a food factory as well as a military communique warning of further strikes.

The government in Seoul came under pressure for the military's slow response to the attack, echoing similar complaints made when a warship was sunk in March in the same area, killing 46 sailors.

Defence Minister Kim Tae-young was quizzed by lawmakers who said the government should have taken quicker and stronger retaliatory measures against "North Korea's provocation."

Tuesday's attack was the heaviest in the region since the Korean War ended in 1953, and marked the first civilian deaths in an assault since the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987.

"China will not welcome the US aircraft carrier joining the exercises, because that kind of move can escalate tensions and not relieve them," said Xu Guangyu, a retired major-general in the People's Liberation Army.

"Our biggest objective is stability on the Korean Peninsula. That interest is not served by abandoning North Korea, and so there's no need to rethink the basics of the relationship."

Source:Shanghai Daily/Agencies

(Editor:梁军)

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