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US, S Korea begin major naval drill in East Sea


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SEOUL (AFP): The US and South Korea on Sunday began a major naval exercise in the Sea of Japan, a report said, a move which has sparked warnings of nuclear retaliation from North Korea.

The drill is the first in a series intended "to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behaviour must stop", US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and South's Defence Minister Kim Tae-Young said in a joint statement this week after talks.

South Korea and the United States, citing findings of a multinational investigation, accuse the North of sending a submarine to torpedo a South Korean warship near the tense Yellow Sea border in March.

The communist North denies involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan, which claimed 46 lives.

The US-led United Nations Command said the four-day drill would involve about 20 ships, including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, and some 200 fixed-wing aircraft.

It said 8,000 service personnel from the two allies were to take part in the show of force, which began early Sunday, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Seoul's defence ministry has said the drill had been relocated from the sensitive Yellow Sea (West Sea) to the Sea of Japan (East Sea) in deference to Chinese protests.

But future drills will be held in both seas.

North Korea has denounced the exercise as "very dangerous sabre-rattling" and on Saturday threatened to respond with nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang routinely threatens war in response to joint military exercises by the two long-time allies, calling them a rehearsal for war.

"All these war manoeuvres are nothing but outright provocations aimed to stifle the Democratic People's Republic of Korea by force of arms to all intents and purposes," the North's National Defence Commission said in a statement on Pyongyang's official news agency.

"The army and people of the DPRK will legitimately counter with their powerful nuclear deterrence, the largest-ever nuclear war exercises to be staged by the US and the South Korean puppet forces."

The exercise "is as reckless an act as waking up a sleeping tiger", it said.

In response to the warnings, Washington called on North Korea to tone down its "provocative" statements.

"We are not interested in a war of words with North Korea," said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley. "What we need from North Korea is fewer provocative words and more constructive action.”

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