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North Korean soldiers entered the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas Friday and fired shots in the air but retreated after South Korean guards fired warning shots, the South Korean defense ministry said.

The incursion, a violation of the 43-year-old Korean War armistice, was the first since North Korean soldiers entered the demilitarized zone on three straight nights in early April.It defied the truce on three counts: The seven soldiers were carrying heavy arms, they discharged their weapons and they crossed the line separating the North and South Korean sides of the zone.

None of the incidents have touched off clashes, but South Korea put its 650,000-member military on heightened alert after the April incursions.

"We think the latest incursion is part of the North's longstanding scheme to prove that the 1953 Korean Armistice does not work," a defense ministry spokesman said Friday on condition of anonymity.

The Korean War ended with an armistice but no peace treaty. North Korea wants to negotiate a treaty with Washington and bypass South Korea, which it considers an American puppet, but Washington says the rival Koreas have to negotiate directly.

At the White House, an official who spoke on condition of anonymity described the incursion as "not a major incident."

The South Korean defense ministry said seven North Korean soldiers carrying rifles entered the demilitarized zone around 9:30 a.m. and fired shots, presumably in the air. Nearly three hours later, they advanced into the South Korean side of the zone.

They stayed in that position for about an hour, but retreated after South Korean border guards fired 14 warning shots, the ministry said.