INCHEON, South Korea — As they left behind gutted homes, scorched trees and rubble-strewn streets, residents of the tiny South Korean island shelled by North Korea told harrowing tales of fiery destruction and narrow escapes.
Ann Ahe-ja, one of hundreds of exhausted evacuees from Yeonpyeong island arriving in the port of Incheon on a rescue ship, said Tuesday's artillery barrage that killed four people — two of them civilians — had caught her by surprise.
"Over my head, a pine tree was broken and burning," Ann told AP Television News on Wednesday. "So I thought 'Oh, this is not another exercise. It is a war.' I decided to run. And I did."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the shelling of the island near the two nations' disputed maritime border one of the "gravest incidents" since the Korean War.
South Korean troops remained on high alert, and the country's Cabinet held a special meeting Thursday to assess security and economic impacts from the attack. In Washington, President Barack Obama pledged to "stand shoulder to shoulder" with Seoul and called upon China to restrain its ally, North Korea.
The U.S. has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to guard against North Korean aggression, a legacy of the bitter three-year conflict that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
Seoul and Washington reaffirmed plans to hold joint military exercises later this week in the Yellow Sea, just 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Yeonpyeong. The White House said the aircraft carrier USS George Washington would take part.
About 10 homes suffered direct hits and 30 were destroyed in the midafternoon barrage, according to a local official who spoke by telephone from the island just seven miles (11 kilometers) from the North Korean shore. About 1,700 civilians live on Yeonpyeong alongside South Korean troops stationed there.
"I heard the sound of artillery, and I felt that something was flying over my head," said Lim Jung-eun, 36, who fled the island with three children, including a 9-month-old strapped to her back. "Then the mountain caught on fire."
Many of those evacuated from Yeonpyeong had spent the night in underground shelters and embraced tearful family members on arrival in Incheon.
The shower of artillery from North Korea was the first to strike a civilian population. In addition to the two marines killed, the bodies of two men, believed in their 60s, were pulled from a destroyed construction site, the coast guard said. At least 18 people — most of them troops — were injured.
Officials in Seoul said there could be considerable North Korean casualties. North Korea's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper published a military statement accusing South Korea of triggering the exchange, but did not mention any casualties.
The skirmish began after North Korea warned the South to stop carrying out military drills near their sea border, South Korean officials said.
When Seoul refused and fired artillery into disputed waters — away from the North Korean shore — the North retaliated by shelling Yeonpyeong.
Seoul responded by unleashing its own barrage of howitzers and scrambling its fighter jets.
North Korea, laying out its version of events, said the army warned the South several times that firing "a single shell" in its waters would draw a "prompt retaliatory strike." A military official phoned a South Korean counterpart at 8 a.m. to urge Seoul to cancel the drills, the North's news agency KCNA reported.
But the South Koreans — displaying their "crafty and vicious nature" — went ahead and fired dozens of shells some five hours later, prompting a defensive response, the report said.
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