BEIJING // North Korea pounded a South Korean island with artillery shells yesterday in one of the most serious clashes between the two countries in decades, as the international community warned of the dangers if tensions continue to escalate.
Two South Korean marines were killed and more than a dozen military personnel and civilians injured when an estimated 200 shells rained down on Yeonpyeong island yesterday afternoon.
The island, which is home to at least 1,500 people, lies close to the disputed northern limit line maritime border.
South Korea scrambled F-16 fighter jets and the country's military fired about 80 shells in the opposite direction, as up to 70 buildings on the island were set alight, sending plumes of smoke into the air.
"At least 10 houses are burning. I can't see clearly for the smoke. The hillsides are also on fire," an island resident, Lee Jong-Sik, told South Korean television.
"We were told by loudspeakers to flee our homes for bunkers."
There were reports of bushfires on the island, while some residents rushed to the port to flee. South Korea's currency, the won, plunged in value following the barrage.
Analysts said Pyongyang was looking to increase pressure on Seoul and Washington amid speculation on Monday that US nuclear missiles could be placed on South Korean soil, and as six-party talks over its nuclear programme remain stalled.
Yesterday's flare-up also follows revelations from a US scientist over the weekend that the north's capabilities in uranium enrichment, a likely key part of any programme to develop nuclear weapons, are more advanced than commonly thought.
The presence in North Korea of an "industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges", as reported by the American scientist Siegfried Hecker, is believed by some analysts to have come as a surprise to South Korea and its ally the United States, ratcheting up regional tensions.
Most of the 200 shells reported by local television to have landed on Yeonpyeong were said to have struck a military base. The shelling started at around 2.30pm local time and lasted about an hour.
"It was a pre-planned, intentional and illegal attack in violation of the United Nations ceasefire accord, and an inhumane atrocity that fired random shells towards residential areas of defenceless civilians," said the South Korean defence minister, General Lee Hong-Ki.
South Korea's cabinet held an emergency meeting to discuss the shelling and the country's military went on "Class A" alert. A statement from the office of the country's president, Lee Myung-bak, regarded as a hardliner in relations with Pyongyang, warned the country would "sternly retaliate" to further provocation.
The attack was the first time North Korea had landed shells on its southern neighbour's soil since the ending in 1953 of the Korean War, which technically continues as no peace treaty was signed.
South Korea said the north began firing after it made several protests over military exercises Seoul was carrying out in the area. North Korea's official KCNA news agency insisted in a statement the south fired first.
As a potential flashpoint, the island is equipped with bomb shelters and stages regular drills to prepare residents for attacks.
The waters nearby saw clashes between the two nations' navies in 1999 and 2002 that killed around 50 military personnel. There were also hostilities near the disputed sea border in November last year.
Tensions between the north and south have run high since the sinking in March of a South Korean patrol boat with the loss of 46 lives, an incident blamed on Pyongyang.
In response to the revelations over the weekend about North Korea's uranium enrichment, the US envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, ruled out the resumption of the six-party talks.
The discussions, chaired by China and involving both North and South Korea, the United States, Japan and Russia, have previously seen North Korea secure aid in return for assurances over its nuclear programme. China yesterday called for calm and the resumption of the talks, while Washington said it "strongly condemns" the shelling and that Pyongyang must end "belligerent action". Russia spoke of the "colossal danger" of events escalating.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, branded the shelling an "irresponsible act" and urged restraint and dialogue.
A spokesman for the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, described the attack as "one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War" and urged both sides to exercise restraint.
The UN chief conveyed his utmost concern to the UN Security Council, which has imposed two rounds of sanctions against North Korea in response to its nuclear test blasts in 2006 and 2009.
According to Brian Bridges, a Korea specialist at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, yesterday's attack tied in with Pyongyang's "calculated" decision to allow its nuclear programme to be made public.
"They like to do things that draw attention to themselves and remind the world they should be negotiated with," he said by telephone.
* With additional reporting by James Reinl at the United Nations in New York, Bloomberg and Reuters