At least four South Korean sailors are dead, about 20 injured and one missing following a clash in the Yellow Sea between South and North Korean warships. There was no immediate word on North Korean casualties. The deadly encounter between the two navies comes after a number of recent incursions by northern vessels into southern waters.
South Korea's military says the shootout in the Yellow Sea lasted about 20 minutes. When it was over, one South Korean speedboat, with a crew of 27, had suffered a direct hit and a North Korean patrol boat had caught fire.
The Defense Ministry in Seoul says the clash began when its Navy attempted to repel an unspecified number of northern fishing boats that were being escorted by two North Korean navy ships. They were nearly five kilometers into South Korean waters.
The South Koreans say the northern ships opened fire first, after ignoring warnings to leave the area broadcast by loudspeakers from South Korean ships.
Lieutenant General Lee Sang Hee, with South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls the incursion a clear violation of the 1953 armistice between the two governments. The general says North Korea was responsible for the incident, which occurred more than 40 kilometers west of the South Korean coast.
In 1999, a series of incursions by North Korean ships ignited the first clash at sea between the two nations since the Korean War ended in 1953. The two nations, divided in 1945, never signed a peace treaty to formally end that war.
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.