Koreas Exchange Border Gunfire

SEOUL, South Korea -- In the most serious armed clash in almost a year, North Korean soldiers fired at least 10 mortar rounds at a South Korean border post Wednesday during a heavy exchange of gunfire, the Defense Ministry said.

North Korea said several of its soldiers were wounded in the exchange along the central part of the Korean border, the world's most heavily armed.

No South Korean casualties were reported in the shooting, which each side blamed on the other.

North Korea accused South Korea of committing a "grave armed provocative act.'' South Korea called it an "intentional provocation'' by North Korea.

It was the most serious armed clash since last September, when a North Korean submarine was found aground off South Korea's east coast.

In a subsequent manhunt, 24 North Korean occupants of the sub and 13 South Korean soldiers and civilians were killed.

South Korean border guards spotted at least seven North Korean troops on the southern side of the demilitarized zone shortly before 11 a.m. local time, and ordered them through a loudspeaker to withdraw, the ministry said.

When the North Korean soldiers continued moving southward, South Korean soldiers fired some 200 rifle shots into the air as a warning, it added.

The North Koreans fired rifles at the South Korean soldiers, the Defense Ministry said, and the southern guards then directed fire at the northerners with machine guns and recoilless rifles.

North Korean soldiers at a guard post across the border returned fire with a round from a recoilless rifle, about 10 mortar rounds and two more rounds of unidentified artillery, the ministry said.

Forty-five minutes after the initial gunshot, South Korean soldiers called for a cease-fire through loudspeakers. The North Koreans stopped shooting shortly thereafter.

But in a report by its official news agency, the North denied that its soldiers crossed the border and accused the South of obstructing "the routine patrol duty'' of its soldiers.

"The people's army soldiers were compelled to take self-defensive measures under the grave situation. The two sides, therefore, went into fierce armed conflict on the [military demarcation line],'' the North's Korean Central News Agency said.

It said soldiers were seriously injured and outpost buildings destroyed, but did not specify how many soldiers were hurt.

South Koreans fired some 3,000 shells and bullets, the North Korean agency said.

The demilitarized zone is a 4-kilometer-wide buffer that stretches the width of the Korean Peninsula, roughly along the 38th parallel.

The distance between the guard posts of the two sides within the zone is estimated at 2 to 2 1/2 kilometers.

"This incident is an intentional and grave violation of the military armistice, and we make clear that all blame lies with North Korea,'' South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kang Jun-kwon said.

Seoul said it will lodge a protest with the Military Armistice Commission, the body that oversees the truce between the two Koreas.

The two Koreas never signed a peace treaty after their Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, and their border remains the most heavily guarded in the world.

Wednesday's shooting came three weeks before the two sides, along with China and the United States, were scheduled to hold a preliminary meeting in New York to discuss a permanent peace treaty.

South Korea has promised huge economic benefits for the impoverished North if it improves ties.

The shooting broke out about 75 kilometers northeast of Seoul, the southern capital.

While North Korean soldiers occasionally cross to the southern side of the border, exchanges of gunfire are not common.