Chinese war dead home from S Korea after 6 decades

BEIJING - The remains of more than 400 Chinese soldiers killed fighting in the Korean War over six decades ago returned to their homeland on Friday for a final burial, state media reported.

A Chinese plane transporting the coffins of the 437 soldiers touched down in the northeastern city of Shenyang, the official Xinhua news agency said in a short dispatch.

Earlier, the small coffins, draped in the Chinese flag, were carried by Chinese soldiers onto the aircraft at South Korea's Incheon airport for the flight to Shenyang, where China has a state cemetery for its war dead.

The return symbolises the turnaround in ties between Beijing and Seoul, once ideological enemies that only established diplomatic relations in 1992 as Cold War enmities gave way to booming trade and cooperation.

China fought alongside the North in the 1950-53 conflict, its dramatic and crucial intervention coming after US-led forces pushed the Communist army almost as far as the Chinese border.

The Chinese intervention enabled Communist forces to drive Western troops back south, and ultimately the peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel.

Casualty figures remain disputed but Western estimates commonly cite a figure of 400,000 Chinese deaths, while Chinese sources mention a toll of about 180,000.

"This is a new milestone in bilateral relations and is expected to serve as a good example of promoting peace in Northeast Asia," South Korean defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok said.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye had offered to return the bodies as a goodwill gesture during a visit to Beijing in June last year.

The transfer comes in time for the annual Chinese Qingming, or Tomb-Sweeping, festival when many people visit and clean the graves of their ancestors. This year it falls on April 5.

The soldiers' bodies were initially buried in different locations scattered around South Korea.

In 1996, Seoul designated a special cemetery plot in Paju, just south of the heavily-fortified border with the North, where all the remains of Chinese and North Korean soldiers still on South Korean soil could be buried together.

Work on exhuming the Chinese bodies at Paju for repatriation began in December.

While some graves are named, most are identified only by nationality.

China and South Korea "agreed to establish a long-term cooperative mechanism to return the soldiers' remains before the traditional Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day every year", Xinhua said in an earlier report from Incheon.

Xinhua quoted Zou Ming, an official with China's civil affairs ministry, as saying Beijing appreciated Seoul's help as well as the friendship and goodwill of its media and public.

More than 700 North Korean soldiers are also interred at the Paju site, but Pyongyang has ignored Seoul's offer to return them despite sporadic talks on the issue.

The bodies of more than two dozen North Korean commandos killed in a daring but unsuccessful 1968 attack on the presidential palace in Seoul are also buried there, along with a North Korean agent responsible for the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 115 people, who committed suicide after he was captured.