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North, S. Korea exchange heavy fire across border

dmz July 16, 1997
Web posted at: 10:32 a.m. EDT (1432 GMT)

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- North Korea fired several rounds of artillery shells into South Korea Wednesday in the most serious border clash in recent years, the South Korean Defense Ministry said.

Both countries, which have never signed a peace treaty after the 1950-53 Korean War, accused each other of provoking the clash.

South Korea said the firefight erupted early Wednesday, when a group of North Korean soldiers crossed the Military Demarcation Line, which runs through the middle of the 2.5-mile (4-km) wide buffer zone dividing the two countries. A spokesman for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said southern troops issued warnings over loudspeakers and fired warning shots.

The spokesman said the North Korean forces responded by firing at least 10 mortar rounds at two South Korean guard posts. There were no reports of South Korean casualties.

CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-Ae reports on the DMZ incident

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Reactions to mounting border tensions
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Impact on future New York talks

North Korea's Pyongyang radio gave a different account of the events. The radio report, monitored in Tokyo, said that North Korean soldiers were carrying out normal reconnaissance patrols when South Korean troops opened fire. "From this attack, several soldiers were injured and several guard posts were destroyed," the radio reported. It described the incident as a "grave armed provocative act."

The South Korean defense ministry said in its statement, "The crossing of the military demarcation line and firing heavy firearms at our guard posts in spite of repeated warnings from our side is an intentional provocation."

A South Korean defense ministry official described the firefight as a rare but very serious provocation by the North, and said the move appeared to be intentional.

Wednesday's cross-border incident lasted less than an hour, and fighting ended after Southern troops reportedly issued a cease-fire call. It occurred in one of the most heavily militarized areas, which is often described as the last Cold War front.

The shooting came just three weeks before the two Koreas are scheduled to meet in New York to work toward a formal peace accord.

The negotiations, scheduled for August 5, will also include the United States and China. Political analysts said Wednesday's shooting incident is unlikely to derail the peace process.

Kim Chang-su of the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul said the incident underlined the problems facing the North Korean leadership. "Threatened by famine and a collapsing economy, Pyongyang needs to whip up war atmosphere to tighten control," he said.

Some Korea watchers have been keeping a close eye on the Pyongyang government in recent months, trying to assess whether the North might take a more aggressive stance against the South in the light of its severe food shortages, caused by two years of devastating floods.

There have been several incidents at the buffer zone dividing the two Koreas in recent months.

In a major incident last September, a North Korean submarine went aground off South Korea's northeast coast. The discovery of the submarine triggered a hunt for its occupants in which 24 North Koreans were killed, and one was captured.

Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-Ae and Reuters contributed to this report.

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