(ATTN: ADDS South Korean military's press briefing, details; RECASTS lead para; RESTRUCTURES)
SEOUL, Nov. 23 (Yonhap) -- Two South Korean marines were killed and at least 15 others injured, five of them critically, from North Korea's barrage of artillery fired onto a South Korean island Tuesday near the tense western sea border, military officials said.
South Korea immediately returned fire and lobbed more than 80 shells toward North Korean artillery positions on the west coast and sent fighter jets to the island. All of the country's troops were placed on maximum alert, officials said.
The North's attack was "intentional and premeditated," Lt. Gen. Lee Hong-ki of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.
"Our military fired back immediately at the North's site where the shells were fired," the general said in a press briefing, adding he believes the North suffered "significant" damage.
Lee confirmed two marines stationed at the island's Howitzer installation died from related injuries while being transported to a hospital in Seoul by helicopter. Five were seriously injured and 10 others suffered minor injuries, he said. Three civilians were also reported to have been hurt.
"Currently, our military is focusing on deterring the North's further provocation and stably managing the situation," the general said. "But if North Korea stages further provocation, we will deal sternly against it."
The North's artillery shells started falling on Yeonpyeong Island, about 80 kilometers northwest of the port of Incheon, and its surrounding waters around 2:34 p.m., according to Col. Lee Bung-woo, a JCS spokesman. Officials said some 100 shells were fired by the North before the crossfire ended about an hour later.
The clash came amid rising tensions on the peninsula following North Korea's claim that it is running a highly sophisticated uranium enrichment plant and building a light-water reactor, which, if true, would greatly bolster its nuclear stockpile and arms development.
Seoul said Tuesday's attack was a blatant violation of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. A foreign ministry official said the government was looking at possibly referring the latest provocation to the United Nations.
The South's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae called the North's action a "clear military provocation" and warned that any further attack would be dealt with "stern retaliation."
"North Korea will have to bear full responsibility" for Tuesday's attack, Cheong Wa Dae said.
Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said it was indefinitely postponing Red Cross talks that were set for Thursday.
Some 1,600 residents at Yeonpyeong Island were all evacuated to shelters, but they said the island was still in a state of chaos, adding that homes and forests were ablaze in fire and in a near blackout from power outages.
"I was at home when I was surprised by the sounds of bomb explosions. As I stepped out of my home, I saw the entire village had already turned into a sea of fire," said a 35-year-old resident who identified himself only as Kim.
"I'm now staying in a shelter along with other villagers, but I'm still shaking with fear."
The JCS estimated that some 100 shells landed on and near Yeonpyeong Island, which lies about 3 kilometers south of the Yellow Sea border, until 4:42 p.m.
JCS officials said the South's military sent a telephone message at 5:55 p.m. to North Korea to demand the shelling be stopped.
The South's Navy has been conducting an annual military drill near the island since Monday, which North Korea protested against as recent as Tuesday morning.
Hours after the clash, the North's top military command claimed that South Korea had fired first into its territory.
"It is our military's traditional response to tame those who provoke" with "fire lightening," its statement said.
JCS Chairman Han Min-koo and Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of some 28,500 U.S. troops in the South, held telephone talks and agreed to consider declaring a "joint crisis management," the JCS spokesman said.
The western sea border was the scene of bloody gun battles between the navies of the two Koreas in 1999, 2002 and most recently in November last year.
Tension escalated in March when a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sank in the Yellow Sea, leaving 46 sailors dead. A Seoul-led international investigation team blamed a North Korean torpedo attack for the tragedy, but Pyongyang denies any responsibility.
The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
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