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White House says sea standoff has eased

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Clinton administration expressed concern about an exchange of gunfire between North Korean and South Korean ships but said Tuesday the situation appears to have eased.

"There has been separation at sea, with North Korean ships moving back north," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council."We have been in close contact with the South Korean government and are reaching out to the North Korean government to make clear that they need to stay north of the limit line," Hammer said. "Any time there is an exchange of fire, it becomes a tense situation. We don't want to see any miscalculations."

Ships from the two Koreas have been confronting each other for a week in disputed waters of the Yellow Sea.

The contested region, a rich crab fishing ground, is claimed by both Koreas as territorial waters.

North Korea has sent fishing boats and naval ships into the zone 20 to 30 times a year. However, it usually withdraws upon a challenge by South Korean patrol boats.

"From my understanding, this is an annual situation," said P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "North Korea has, in the past, attempted to bring vessels down to these waters. In the past, when they've been warned off by South Korean vessels, they've turned around and returned to North Korea. This year, for some reason, they have not."

Crowley said the Clinton administration is "very concerned" about the action by North Korea and is closely monitoring developments.