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Tensions rise as South Korean ship sinks after mystery blast

South Korean sailors died yesterday when their navy ship sank after an explosion off an island near North Korea, reports said.

The South's military rushed rescue vessels to the scene yesterday amid fears that the ship had been attacked by the North.

A naval official told South Korea's Yonhap news agency there were some deaths. The military could not confirm the report but said 58 of the 104 crew members on board were safe.

Rear Admiral Lee Ki-sik said the ship, on a routine patrolling mission, began sinking off the coast of South Korean-controlled Baengnyeong Island at 9.45pm local time.

Lee said an unexplained hole in the bottom of the ship caused the vessel to take on water.

Yonhap reported that the ship was damaged by an explosion, and said the military had not ruled out the possibility of an attack by North Korea.

The military, meanwhile, moved to strengthen its vigilance near the maritime border, the site of three bloody naval clashes between the warring Koreas.

Earlier, North Korea's military threatened “unpredictable strikes,” including a nuclear attack, in anger over a report that South Korea and the US were preparing for possible instability in the totalitarian country.

After the ship began sinking, President Lee Myung-bak convened an emergency meeting of security-related ministers, including the defence minister and other top military officials. After three hours, they agreed to meet again tomorrow without making any statement about the cause of the incident, presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said.

The cable network YTN said some 40 crew members were missing. However, military officials told the AP they could not confirm deaths, and said 58 sailors had been rescued, with two being airlifted for emergency medical treatment.

Yonhap reported earlier that a South Korean ship fired shots toward an unidentified target in the direction of North Korea, raising fears of an exchange of gunfire.

The military official confirmed Southern troops fired shots but said the object detected by radar may have been a flock of birds.

Senior government officials said the ship may not have been the target of an attack, but could have struck a rock or been damaged by an explosive on board.

Baeknyeong Island is the westernmost point of South Korea and is a key military post for South Korea because of its proximity to the North.

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