South Korea has returned fire after North Korea blasted scores of artillery rounds at a South Korean island, setting houses on fire and forcing evacuations, according to South Korean officials. Some 70 houses were ablaze on the island of Yeonpyeong, close to the two nations' disputed maritime border, witnesses told a local TV station, the Wall Street Journal reports. Two South Korean marines were killed and 16 have been wounded in the biggest outbreak of violence in several years. South Korean officials are holding emergency talks in an underground bunker.
"Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can't see very well because of plumes of smoke," said a witness. "People are frightened to death." Island residents escaped to about 20 shelters; the sporadic shelling ended after about an hour, according to the military. The violence comes just as concerns in the US are mounting that North Korea is boosting its uranium-enriching operations to power nuclear weapons. The United States, which has tens of thousands of troops stationed in South Korea, condemned the attack and called on North Korea to "halt its belligerent action," Robert Gibbs said in Washington. He said the United States is "firmly committed" to South Korea's defense, and to the "maintenance of regional peace and stability." (Click here for early speculation as to why the North fired at the South.)