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S Korea starts major live-fire drill

A file photo.

SEOUL (AFP): South Korea's military Thursday launched a major live-fire drill involving tanks, artillery and jet fighters, in a show of strength staged one month after North Korea's deadly attack on a border island.

Washington expressed support for the live-fire exercise by its ally, the second this week, but Pyongyang criticised the South's "puppet warmongers".

The one-hour live-fire exercise at Pocheon, 30 kms south of the tense land border with North Korea, began at 2.43 pm (0543 GMT), a defence ministry spokesman said.

It is the largest ground-air joint fire drill this year.

Some 800 troops are taking part along with 30 K-1 tanks, 11 K-200 armoured personnel carriers, two F-15K aircraft, four KF-16 aircraft, 36 K-9 artillery pieces, three multiple long-range rockets, four 500MD helicopters, three AH-1S Cobra helicopters and other equipment.

The Navy is also conducting a four-day exercise off the east coast, which began Wednesday.

The South says its drills are defencive, but tensions have been high on the peninsula since the North shelled a South Korean island near the contested western sea border on November 23.

The North said its shelling was in response to a live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong Island. The South said it had been staging such artillery exercises for 37 years and the North was seeking a pretext to attack.

Seoul staged a repeat drill on the same island on Monday, backed up by jet fighters and warships, but the North did not follow through with threats to hit back.

Some analysts said Seoul's show of force deterred the North. Others said the hardline regime had been told by close ally China to exercise restraint before a visit to Washington by President Hu Jintao starting on January 19.

The South's military invited students and other civilians to watch the exercise.

"We are facing a crisis because of North Korea, so I came to see this air and ground operation," Kim Tae-Dong, a 70-year-old Internet businessman, told a pool reporter.

"I want to feel and see the level of South Korea's armed forces," Kim said.

"Another North Korean provocation will happen. We should prepare our military perfectly for that."

The North's official news agency said the South's claims that the drills are routine were an attempt "to conceal the provocative and offensive nature of the exercises".


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