INCHEON, South Korea – South Korea found the burned bodies Wednesday of two islanders killed in a North Korean artillery attack, marking the first civilian deaths in the incident and dramatically escalating the tensions in the region's latest crisis.
The South Korean Coast Guard pulled the bodies of two men, believed in their 60s, from a destroyed construction site on the tiny island of Yeonpyeong near the disputed maritime border with North Korea.
The North's artillery hour-long barrages targeting the island Tuesday also killed at least two South Korean marines and wounded 18 other people in what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called one of the "gravest incidents" since the end of the Korean War.
President Barack Obama underlined Washington's pledge to "stand shoulder to shoulder" and protect its ally Seoul and called upon China to restrain its ally Pyongyang. Seoul and Washington reaffirmed plans to stage joint military exercises later this week in the Yellow Sea, just 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of the island.
South Korea's troops remained on high alert as exhausted evacuees from the island streamed into the port city of Incheon, greeting tearful family members and telling harrowing tales of the hour of destruction.
"I heard the sound of artillery, and I felt that something was flying over my head," said Lim Jung-eun, a 36 year-old housewife who escaped Yeonpyeong island with her three children, one of whom, a 9-month-old baby girl, she carried on her back. "Then the mountain caught on fire."
Civilian deaths are rare in clashes between the Koreas. Most of the skirmishes between the Koreas involve military casualties.
In March, North Korea was blamed for launching a torpedo that sank the South Korean warship Cheonan while on routine patrol, killing 46 sailors. South Korea at the time called it the worst military attack on the country since the war. Pyongyang denied responsibility.
The North's most notorious act of terrorism was the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that claimed 115 lives. And in 1996, 60,000 South Korean soldiers hunted down a group of North Korean spies who slipped ashore from a submarine and killed three civilians and a South Korean army private while roaming the countryside for weeks.