South Korea troops in shootout with soldier who killed five

SEOUL - South Korean troops were engaged Sunday in a fierce gun battle near an elementary school with a runaway soldier who had shot and killed five members of his unit on the border with North Korea.

The 23-year-old army sergeant, surnamed Lim, had opened fire on other South Korean soldiers at a guard post on the eastern section of the heavily guarded frontier Saturday night.

The shooting spree left five dead and seven wounded - and triggered a massive manhunt after Lee fled the scene armed with a K-2 assault rifle and a stash of ammunition.

A defence ministry spokesman said Lim had been tracked and cornered just before 2:30 pm (0530 GMT) at a location 10 kilometers (six miles) from the border.

"He shot at the pursuing troops and they returned fire," the spokesman said, adding that one officer had been wounded in the arm.

"The situation is still ongoing," he said.

Kim So-Rae, a college student who lives in the area, said he had heard at least three separate exchanges of gunfire.

"There are helicopters flying overhead," Kim told YTN television by telephone.

"We haven't been told anything yet, so we're not evacuating. It's pretty scary." According to the military, Lim was due to be discharged in the next few months after completing his compulsory military service.

All those killed or wounded in Saturday's incident were members of Lim's own unit of the 22nd infantry division in the eastern province of Gangwon.

The army issued its highest state of alert in nearby areas during the search for Lim, which had involved thousands of soldiers and police who set up roadblocks and inspected vehicles.

Special commandos and army helicopters were also brought in to speed up the operation, while local residents were warned to stay indoors.

Lim had difficulty adapting to the military, and past psychological evaluations had advised senior officers to pay him special attention, a defence ministry official who wished to remain anonymous told AFP.

This is not the first time the 22nd infantry has been involved in such an incident.

In 1984 a private belonging to the same division opened fire and threw a grenade at fellow soldiers in their barracks, killing 15.

The soldier, Cho Jun-Hee, then crossed the border to defect to the North, a move which Pyongyang's state media later confirmed.

Cold War frontier

The site of Saturday's shooting is just south of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) - a buffer strip that runs the full length of the 250-kilometre (155-mile) frontier.

The four-kilometre-wide DMZ - known as the world's last Cold War frontier - features guard posts manned by the rival armies, barbed wire and roads bisecting minefields.

Because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war.

Many of the South Korean soldiers on border duty are young male recruits doing their mandatory, two-year military service.

These young men make up a large part of the South's 691,000-strong troop presence, compared to 1.17 million in the North.

Most of the victims in Saturday's shooting were conscripts, aged from 19 to 23.

Bullying and cruelty in the barracks have long tarnished the armed forces, and been blamed for suicides and similar shooting incidents.

In July 2011 a 19-year-old marine conscript killed four colleagues in a shooting spree on Gangwha island near the border.

He tried to kill himself with a grenade but survived. He later said he acted after being bullied.

In June 2005 eight soldiers were killed and two seriously wounded when a 22-year-old conscript threw a grenade and sprayed bullets over sleeping colleagues at a frontline guard post north of Seoul.

In both those cases the men were court-martialled and sentenced to death, although the penalty was not carried out.

The armed forces have in recent years taken steps to stamp out bullying, which they called part of a "distorted military culture".