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South Korea begins firing drills

South Korean troops have pushed ahead with naval firing drills, a day after North Korea warned such exercises would aggravate already high tensions between the rivals following the North's deadly shelling last month of a frontline South Korean island.

The drills came ahead of a planned meeting by top diplomats from the United States, South Korea and Japan in Washington on the North's recent aggressive moves, including expanding its nuclear programme in a way that could boost its atomic arsenal.

South Korea's army began firing artillery into the waters off the divided Korean peninsula as part of a series of drills set to continue until Sunday, South Korean army and Joint Chiefs of Staff officers said.

The officers said the previously scheduled drills were to take place at nearly 30 sites, but none of the exercises were along the disputed western sea border between the Koreas where last month's attack took place. The navy said warships were to join the drills later this week.

South Korea's military and defence ministry declined to provide further details.

South Korean prime minister Kim Hwang-sik said that Seoul would spend 30 billion won (£16.7 million) to help reconstruct Yeonpyeong Island and provide money and better living arrangements for islanders, many of whom now live in a public bathhouse in the western port city of Incheon which has been converted into a refugee centre.

Mr Kim also said at a news conference that South Korea would review its crisis management system to better cope with a future attack by North Korea.

North Korea has lashed out at South Korea for causing "uncontrollable, extreme" tension on the peninsula, pointing to the planned firing drills and what it called South Korea's "frantic provocations".

"The South Korean puppet group, far from drawing a lesson from the deserved punishment it faced for its reckless firing of shells into the territorial waters of the (North Korea) side around Yeonpyeong Island, is getting more frantic in military provocations and war moves," the North's official Korean Central News Agency said.

A KCNA dispatch warned that a war between the Koreas would disturb regional peace and security.

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