S Korea starts drill as North criticises 'warmongers'

South Korea's military stages major live-fire drill involving tanks, artillery and jet fighters.

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SEOUL // South Korea's military on Thursday began a major live-fire drill involving tanks, artillery and jet fighters, in a show of strength staged a month after North Korea's deadly attack on a border island.

Washington expressed support for the live-fire exercise--the second this week--by its ally, and Pyongyang criticized the South's "puppet warmongers."

The one-hour live-fire exercise at Pocheon, 30 kilometres south of the tense land border with North Korea, began at 2:43pm. (0543 GMT), a defense ministry spokesman said.

It is the largest ground-air joint fire drill this year.

About 800 personnel are taking part along with 30 K-1 tanks, 11 K-200 armored personnel carriers, two F-15K jets, four KF-16 jets, 36 K-9 artillery pieces, three multiple long-range rockets, four 500MD helicopters, three AH-1S Cobra helicopters and other equipment.

The navy is also conducting a four-day exercise off the east coast, which started Wednesday.

The South says its drills are defensive, but tensions have been high on the peninsula since the North shelled a South Korean island near the contested western sea border on November 23.

The North said its shelling was in response to a live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong island. The South said it had been staging such artillery exercises for 37 years and the North was seeking a pretext to attack.

Seoul staged a repeat drill on the same island Monday, backed by jet fighters and warships, but the North didn't follow through with threats to hit back.

Some analysts said Seoul's show of force deterred the North. Others said the hardline regime had been told by close ally China to exercise restraint before a visit to Washington by President Hu Jintao, starting on January 19.

The South's military invited students and other civilians to watch the exercise.

"We are facing a crisis because of North Korea, so I came to see this air and ground operation," Kim Tae-dong, a 70-year-old Internet businessman, told a pool reporter.

"I want to feel and see the level of South Korea's armed forces," Kim said.

"Another North Korean provocation will happen. We should prepare our military perfectly for that."

The North's official news agency said the South's claims that the drills are routine were an attempt "to conceal the provocative and offensive nature of the exercises."

By North Korea's standards, the wording was relatively mild. In another sign that tensions are easing, the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff said it had lowered a military alert issued for frontline areas before and during Monday's drill.

The US, which has 28,500 personnel based in the South, warned North Korea there was no reason for it to respond to the latest drills.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the maneuvers had been announced well in advance and were transparent and defensive, and "should in no way engender a response from the North Koreans."

The Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper said that while the North had failed to respond to Monday's drill, the two militaries were jockeying for position behind the scenes.

The paper, quoting Seoul military sources, said the North had made preparations to fire anti-aircraft missiles.

Light beams to guide them were detected at an anti-aircraft base in the North's Hwanghae province, but no missiles were launched, it said.

A defence ministry spokesman declined comment.