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S. Korea Started Shootout Between Navy Vessels, Says North


North Korea has reacted to Saturday's shootout with the South Korean Navy, offering a different account of the incident. Pyongyang blames South Korea for starting the battle, which left at least four South Korean sailors dead, one missing and about 20 injured.

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said a South Korean naval vessel started the shootout by firing hundreds of bullets and shells, compelling the North Korean ships to return fire in self-defense.

The communist government's foreign news outlet terms the incident a premeditated military provocation by South Korea. The news agency report from Pyongyang also said the exchange of fire happened in North Korean waters. Pyongyang did not comment on South Korea reports that one of the North Korean warships was towed away in flames.

Earlier Saturday, South Korean Lieutenant General Lee Sang-hee briefed reporters on Seoul's version of the events. The South Korean military said one of its naval speedboats sank after taking a direct hit. Seoul said a North Korean patrol boat armed with large-caliber weapons fired on the speedboat from about 500 meters away. South Korea said the North Koreans had crossed over into the South's waters.

Both Seoul and Pyongyang said in their statements that the incident is a setback for détente between the two nations, divided for nearly 60 years by what is regarded as the most heavily fortified border in the world.

The two nations, divided in 1945, never signed a peace treaty to formally end the war they fought in the early 1950's. Over the years there have been several military clashes such as Saturday's shootout.

This latest clash prompted South Korean President Kim Dae Jung to call his National Security Council into emergency session.

The clash erupted just hours before the kickoff for the World Cup third-place playoff game in Daegu between co-host South Korea and Turkey. South Korea's television stations, which have been broadcasting a heavy dose of World Cup programming, switched to news bulletins detailing the naval battle.

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