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N. Korea pulls back but issues warnings

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea threatened on Saturday to carry out strikes in self-defense if South Korean forces did not halt "reckless provocations" in a standoff along their maritime boundary in the Yellow Sea.

"The South Korean authorities must know that if they continue reckless provocations despite our repeated warnings, they will meet with our strong self-defensive strikes. There is a limit to patience," said a North Korean statement out of the Korean War truce village of Panmunjom.Officials with South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korean boats had retreated by midnight Friday and were now some six kilometers north of the boundary dividing the bitter rivals' waters.

The two countries have engaged in a tense cat-and-mouse game off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula for the past week. South Korea says Northern naval vessels have crossed into southern waters daily, apparently to protect a fleet of crab-catching vessels, before returning to the North in the evening.

The standoff, which has been largely peaceful with neither side opening fire, escalated on Friday when South Korean ships repeatedly rammed North Korean vessels, driving them back across the sea boundary.

North Korea, which has largely avoided incendiary rhetoric so far, blasted South Korea in the statement issued by the spokesman for the Korean People's Army mission in Panmunjom and carried by the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency.

"It is an unshakeable will of the Korean revolutionary armed forces never to pardon those who violate even 0.001 mm of the sky, the land and the sea of the fatherland in defense of their sovereignty," it said.

The statement said South Korea must be held wholly responsible for all consequences of the naval "provocations," which it said has rendered the situation extremely dangerous.

The two Koreas remain technically at war across the world's most militarized frontier because their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armed truce and not a peace agreement.

South Korea did not respond immediately to the North Korean threat, and an official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he thought the statement was mere rhetoric.

"There's no official comment, but I don't see any need for comment on such a statement," the lieutenant-colonel, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

The U.N. Command, which overseas the uneasy truce, has requested general officer-level talks with the North Korean army to discuss the Yellow Sea incident.

"The U.N. Command views the North's intrusions into the waters south of the Northern Limit Line as a provocative act, clearly, which has increased tensions in the area," said U.S. Army Col. Carl Kropf, U.N. Command spokesman.