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(2nd LD) Two Koreas exchange fire at border

All Headlines 20:27 October 29, 2010

(ATTN: ADDS more background from para 7; RECASTS lead)

SEOUL, Oct. 29 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korean troops exchanged fire Friday near the border, with the North launching the first shots toward a South Korean military guard post, an official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) here said.

"Two shots were fired from a North Korean military guard post (GP) toward our GP around 5:26 p.m., and we immediately returned fire with three shots as under the rules of engagement," the official said. "There was no damage from the North Korean shots."

The South Korean GP is in Hwacheon, 118 kilometers northeast of Seoul. The GPs are 1.3 kilometers away from each other. The official said after returning fire, South Korea twice issued warnings that the North had breached the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

According to the JCS, the defense readiness posture has been strengthened and forces are prepared for quick mobilization in contingency.

"It hasn't been confirmed whether the North Korean military took an aimed shot," the official said. "The United Nations Command (UNC) will send a special investigation team to determine whether North Korea had violated terms of the armistice."

South Korean military officials are looking at possible links between the shooting and a threat by the North earlier Friday of physical retaliation over Seoul's refusal to hold inter-Korean military talks.

In a typically strong-worded statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea called the South Korean rejection "an act of treachery."

"The South Korean puppet military authorities will have to keenly realize what a catastrophic impact their rejection of dialogue will have on the North-South relations," the statement read.

The two Koreas held their first working-level military talks in two years on Sept. 30 for discussions on cross-border issues, but the two-hour meeting ended without progress as Pyongyang refused to apologize for its alleged sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan.

A Seoul-led multinational investigation team concluded in May that the warship was downed by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine near the Yellow Sea border. Forty-six sailors died in the sinking.

In response to the North Korean proposal for talks, the South's defense ministry asked the North to take "responsible measures" for the Cheonan sinking. Ministry officials said the North refused to heed the request.

The shooting came a day before families from the two Koreas are scheduled to start their reunions in North Korea. The Unification Ministry said the meetings will proceed as scheduled.

Ninety-seven families, or more than 430 people aged between 70 and 96, are gathered in an east coast South Korean town, Sokcho, 213 kilometers east of Seoul and about half an hour drive from Mount Kumgang, where the reunions will be held.

"All the preparations are going smoothly," a ministry official said. "We don't foresee any problems with holding reunions tomorrow as planned."

South Korean families are scheduled to return Monday. Then families living in North Korea will be briefly reunited with their kin living south of the border from next Wednesday to Friday.

These will be the first reunions in slightly more than a year. More than 80,000 South Koreans are waiting for a chance to be reunited with their loved ones left in the North after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.

More than 20,800 family members have been reunited since 2000 when the Koreas held their first summit. About one-fifth of them have been reunited via video. Virtually no means of contact are available between the citizens of the countries.

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