North and South Korean troops exchanged fire in the sensitive inter-Korean buffer zone Tuesday as relations between the two Koreas sunk to their lowest ebb since last year's landmark peace talks.
The brief exchange of fire inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which divides the Korean peninsula, was triggered by North Korea, UN and South Korean officials said.
The first shots in three years and five months inside the Cold War frontier, at 10.42am (0142 GMT), came amid growing tension caused by the South's security alert following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
There were no casualties on the South Korean side, a defense ministry spokesman said, adding that an investigation was launched to determine if the shooting near the truce village of Panmunjom was deliberate.
"North Korean troops fired several shots from a machine gun toward one of our guard posts inside the DMZ, prompting our side to return fire," he said.
One bullet hit and shattered the window of a fortified South Korean bunker, which serves as a guard post, while two bullets hit its iron fence, the spokesman said.
The spokesman said the rival bunkers were 750 meters apart.
"We fired back a dozen shots after a warning through loudspeakers," he added.
But the North Korean side did not respond further.
"No unusual military movement has been detected since the brief exchange of fire," an official of the Joint Chief of Staff said.
The defense ministry accused the North of firing 7.62-millimeter bullets used for machine guns, which are banned inside the DMZ under an armistice accord signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The four-kilometer (2.5 mile) wide, 250-kilometer (155-mile) long DMZ is dotted with land mines and hundreds of bunkers with both sides allowed to carry only pistols and light rifles.
The two Koreas are still technically at war, with their heavily armed border guarded by more than one million soldiers.
The South's military accused the North of violating the armistice agreement, vowing to file complaints with the UN command, which oversees the truce.
The UN has sent a team to investigate the incident. "The initial report from the UN command is that shots were fired from the North side of the DMZ," a UNC spokesman said.
The shooting coincided with accusations by the North that the South had introduced "combat armored cars" into the buffer zone.
"The provocation by the South Korean military who were clamoring about 'their observance of the armistice agreement' proves their bellicosity and impudence," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.
"They should stop a rash act, mindful of grave consequences of the military provocation," it added.
The South's military rejected the KCNA claim as groundless, saying it has strictly observed the ceasefire agreement.
Last year's summit in Pyongyang between North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung had helped the two sides improve relations dramatically.
But the rapprochement has virtually ground to a halt since high-level peace talks collapsed in early November over counter-terrorism alert in place in South Korea.
The North is demanding the South lift the alert, accusing the United States of raising tension under the pretext of fighting terrorism.
Last week the North began lambasting the South's military for provocation, ending a 16-month-long freeze on its Cold War campaign of verbal salvoes – Seoul (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)