INCHEON, South Korea (AP) — 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 Wednesday 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.
'It is a war ...'
"Over my head, a pine tree was broken and burning," Ann told AP Television News. "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. 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 south of Yeonpyeong. The White House said the aircraft carrier USS George Washington would take part.
10 homes took direct hits
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 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."