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S Korea to stage firing drills near land border

A file photo.

SEOUL (AP): South Korea vowed on Wednesday to "punish the enemy" as hundreds of troops, fighter aircraft, tanks and attack helicopters prepared for massive new drills near the heavily armed border a month after deadly North Korean artillery attack.

Although the North backed down from its threat to retaliate over South Korean drills Monday in west coast waters claimed by both countries, South Korean forces have been on high alert this week, warning of surprise attacks.

The North responded to a Nov 23 artillery drill on South Korea's front-line Yeonpyeong Island with an artillery bombardment that killed four, including two civilians.

The North has made some conciliatory gestures in recent days -telling a visiting US governor that it might allow international nuclear inspections of its atomic programmes - but Seoul appears unmoved and is bracing for possible aggression.

"We will completely punish the enemy if it provokes us again like the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island," Brig Gen Ju Eun-sik, chief of the army's 1st armored brigade, said.

South Korea's Navy has begun annual four-day firing and anti-submarine exercises on Wednesday off the country's less-tense east coast.

The disputed western sea border has been the site of most of the Koreas' recent military skirmishes, including last month's artillery bombardment. But the east coast was used by the North as a submarine route for communist agents to infiltrate South Korea in the past.

South Korea's Army and Air Force also planned joint firing drills on Thursday near the Koreas' land border.

The training -the 48th of its kind this year- will be the biggest-ever wintertime joint firing exercise that South Korea's Army and Air Force have staged, the army said in a statement.

The drill will involve 800 troops, F-15K and KF-16 jet fighters, K-1 tanks, AH-1S attack helicopters and K-9 self-propelled guns, the statement said.

South Korea had planned to conduct only 47 drills of this type this year but decided to conduct one more because of continuing tension with North Korea, an army officer said on condition of anonymity citing department rules.

North Korea, meanwhile, indicated to visiting New Mexico Gov Bill Richardson that it was prepared to consider ways to work with the South on restoring security along the border.

Richardson praised Pyongyang for refraining from retaliation and said his visit to the North provided an opening for a resumption of negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear programme.

North Korea pulled out of six-nation talks to provide Pyongyang with aid in exchange for disarmament in April 2009, but since has said it is willing to resume them.


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