Tensions high after deadly shelling of S. Korea island
Restraint urged; survivors tell of escaping strike
INCHON, South Korea — As they left behind gutted homes, scorched trees, and rubble-strewn streets, residents of the tiny South Korean island shelled by North Korea told harrowing tales yesterday of fiery destruction and narrow escapes.
Ann Ahe-ja, one of hundreds of exhausted evacuees from Yeonpyeong Island arriving in the port of Inchon on a rescue ship, said Tuesday’s artillery barrage that killed four people — two of them civilians — had caught her by surprise.
“Over my head, a pine tree was broken and burning,’’ Ann told AP Television News. “So I thought, ‘Oh, this is not another exercise. It is a war.’ I decided to run. And I did.’’
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the shelling of the island near the two nations’ disputed maritime border one of the “gravest incidents’’ since the Korean War.
South Korean troops remained on high alert. In Washington, President Obama pledged to “stand shoulder to shoulder’’ with Seoul and called upon China to restrain its ally, North Korea.
The United States has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to guard against North Korean aggression. The troops are a legacy of the bitter three-year conflict that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
Seoul and Washington reaffirmed plans to hold joint military exercises this week in the Yellow Sea, just 70 miles south of Yeonpyeong. The White House said the aircraft carrier USS George Washington would take part.
The Obama administration urged China to press North Korea to halt provocative action, saying Beijing has a duty to tell Pyongyang that deliberate acts “specifically intended to inflame tensions in the region’’ are not acceptable.
China said late yesterday that it was highly concerned about the artillery exchange and urged restraint.
China “feels pain and regret about an incident causing deaths and property losses and is worried about the developments,’’ Hong Lei, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a statement.
Diplomats for countries on the UN Security Council said there had been no request for the 15-member council to hold a full, formal meeting about the shelling, but said some informal bilateral talks were being held.
About 10 homes suffered direct hits and 30 were destroyed in the midafternoon barrage, according to a local official who spoke by telephone from the island just seven miles from the North Korean shore. About 1,700 civilians live on Yeonpyeong alongside South Korean troops stationed there.
“I heard the sound of artillery, and I felt that something was flying over my head,’’ said Lim Jung-eun, 36, who fled the island with three children, including a 9-month-old strapped to her back. “Then the mountain caught on fire.’’
Many evacuees had spent the night in underground shelters and embraced tearful family members on arrival in Inchon.
The shower of artillery from North Korea was the first to strike a civilian population. In addition to the two marines killed, the bodies of two men, believed in their 60s, were pulled from a destroyed construction site, the coast guard said. At least 18 people — most of them troops — were injured.
The skirmish began after North Korea warned the South to stop carrying out military drills near their sea border, South Korean officials said.
When Seoul refused and fired artillery into disputed waters — away from the North Korean shore — the North retaliated by shelling Yeonpyeong.
Seoul responded by unleashing its own barrage of howitzers and scrambling its fighter jets.
North Korea, laying out its version of events, said the army warned the South several times that firing “a single shell’’ in its waters would draw a “prompt retaliatory strike.’’
In Pyongyang, residents boasted that the exchange showed off their military’s strength and ability to counter South Korean aggression.