, SEOUL, Nov 23 – North Korea on Tuesday fired dozens of shells at a South Korean border island, setting buildings ablaze and injuring several people, Seoul officials and media reports said.
South Korean troops based on the island fired back and the military was put on top alert, the defence ministry said.
YTN television said air force jets were scrambled, after what appeared to be one of the most serious border incidents since the 1950-53 war.
The ministry said four Marines — part of a contingent based permanently on Yeonpyeong island — were injured, one of them seriously, and YTN said two civilians were hurt.
A resident of the island near the tense Yellow Sea border told YTN by phone that some 50 shells landed and dozens of houses were damaged.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak held an emergency security meeting, a presidential spokesman said.
"He is now in an underground war room to discuss possible responses with ministers of related agencies and national security advisers… we are closely watching the situation," the spokesman told AFP.
Lee urged the officials to "handle it (the situation) well to prevent further escalation," the spokesman said.
"I was at home but suddenly heard a thunderous sound outside. When I walked out, the whole village was on fire," a villager was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying.
"I\’m at the evacuation site with other villagers and I am scared to death."
Another island resident, Lee Jong-Sik, told YTN: "At least 10 houses are burning. I can\’t see clearly for the smoke. The hillsides are also on fire.
"We were told by loudspeakers to flee our homes for bunkers."
TV footage showed huge plumes of smoke rising from the island.
"After both sides exchanged fire, we sent a warning message by loudspeaker and are watching the situation for now. A Class-A military alert issued for battle situations has been imposed immediately," a defence ministry spokesman said.
Residents have been evacuated to safe areas and the military and police are checking the number of casualties, YTN said.
Defence Minister Kim Tae-Young said the South fired 80 shots in response to the North\’s shelling.
"We were carrying out naval, air force and army training exercises and they (the North) seem to have opened fire in objection," a military official was quoted as saying by YTN.
The incident comes amid high cross-border tensions over the North\’s nuclear programme and the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship near the border in March.
The South blames a North Korean torpedo attack while the North denies responsibility.
Yeonpyeong lies just south of the border declared by United Nations forces after the war, but north of the sea border declared by North Korea.
The Yellow Sea border was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and last November.