S.Korean Soldiers Fire at Asiana Passenger Jet 'by Mistake'

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South Korean troops fired at a passenger jet flying from China with 119 people on board after mistaking it for a North Korean aircraft, amid increasingly fraught relations on the divided peninsula.

Soldiers manning a guard post on Gyodong Island, just 1.7 kilometers south of the North Korean coast, fired their K-2 rifles on Friday towards the plane, descending as it approached Seoul's Incheon International Airport.

Ties between the two Koreas are at their lowest ebb in more than a decade after Pyongyang announced late last month it was breaking all contacts with the South's conservative government.

The plane from South Korea's Asiana airline was flying southeast over Jumun island, 12 kilometers south of Gyodong, towards Incheon.

"The firing continued about 10 minutes but the plane was too far off the rifle's range and it did not receive any damage," Yonhap news agency quoted a Marine Corps official as saying.

"When the plane appeared over Jumun Island, soldiers mistook it as a North Korean military aircraft and fired."

A Marine Corps spokesman told Agence France Presse the report was correct but declined to give further details.

South Korean soldiers had been alerted to possible provocative acts by North Korea amid simmering cross-border tensions.

After a few months of relative calm, the North since late May has been using harsher rhetoric against the South's conservative government -- describing it as a U.S. puppet bent on fuelling confrontation.

An aviation controller told AFP that the Asiana flight from China, with 119 people including crew members and passengers on board, was following a normal route.

"It was flying normally. It did not deviate from its normal route," the controller said.

An Asiana spokesman said the plane was not in danger as it was too far away from the military guard post.

South Korean authorities on Friday rejected North Korea's demand to send back nine refugees from the communist state.

The three men, two women and four children crossed the Yellow Sea border last Saturday in two small boats, with the North's Red Cross warning Thursday that relations could worsen unless the South immediately sends them back.

But Seoul's policy is to accept all North Koreans who wish to stay in the South, while repatriating those who stray across the sea border by accident.

The arrival in February of a boatload of North Koreans sparked weeks of acrimony. That boat drifted across the Yellow Sea border in thick fog, possibly accidentally.

Seoul returned 27 of the 31 people on board but refused to hand over the other four, saying they had freely chosen to stay in the South.

Pyongyang complained bitterly that the four had been pressured to stay and publicized appeals from their relatives for them to come home.

The North's military threatened an attack in protest at some South Korean troops using photos of Pyongyang's ruling family as rifle-range targets. The practice has been stopped but the North is demanding an apology.

Media reports on Friday said the South has deployed missiles capable of hitting the North Korean capital Pyongyang near the tense border.

The deployment of the surface-to-surface missiles was in response to a recent rise in tensions, Yonhap news agency and Dong-A Ilbo newspaper reported.

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