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(LEAD) Military intelligence immediately suspected N. Korea in ship sinking: source

All Headlines 17:21 April 22, 2010

(ATTN: ADDS defense ministry spokesman's remarks in paras 9-10)

SEOUL, April 22 (Yonhap) -- Military intelligence authorities immediately assumed it was North Korea that sank a South Korean naval ship last month, as the communist nation has strengthened training in guerrilla warfare since last year, a senior military source said Thursday.

That assessment was reported to the presidential office and the defense ministry right after the 1,200-ton patrol ship Cheonan broke in half and sank near the western sea border with North Korea on March 26, the source said on condition of anonymity.

"Since February last year, North Korea has strengthened training that showed the possibility of it launching a guerrilla warfare-style provocation, rather than a skirmish," the source said.

On Monday, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young also told parliament that South Korea suspected a North Korean attack right after the sinking, and that's why a nearby warship opened fire at an unidentified object speeding northward, though the object was later found to be a flock of birds.

North Korea's involvement has been suspected from the beginning as the site of the sinking lies near where the two Koreas fought bloody gun battles in 1999, 2002 and most recently in November last year.

Those suspicions grew stronger last week when a chief South Korean investigator, after an initial examination of the vessel's salvaged wreckage, blamed an unidentified "external explosion" as the most likely cause.

However, no concrete evidence, such as fragments of a torpedo, have been found yet.

North Korea rejected its alleged involvement as a fabrication.

A team of investigators, including experts from the United States and Australia, are trying to determine what caused the sinking.

Depending on the result, South Korea will try to identify and fix problems related to the defense of the sea border with North Korea, defense ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said, suggesting the possibility of deploying more weapons and radar systems to the country's five northernmost islands near the border.

Won also said that a plan to cut troop levels on the five islands will be scrapped.

Thirty-eight of Cheonan's 104 crew members have been confirmed dead, and eight more are also believed dead, though they are still listed as missing. The 58 others were rescued before the vessel sank.

The rear half of the ship was pulled from waters last week, with its bow still submerged.

On Thursday, preparations to raise the wreckage suffered yet another setback as two "guiding wires," which were installed a day earlier to tie salvage chains around the broken craft, snapped, clouding hopes of hoisting it by Sunday.

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