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US, S Korea to begin war drills amid North anger

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Seoul, Mar 24: South Korean and US troops will launch week-long joint exercises on Saturday to test whether they are ready to be mobilised if there was an armed conflict on the Korean peninsula, military officers said.

The annual drills have angered North Korea in past years, and the communist state, which says the drills are a prelude to a US invasion, has again stepped up anti-US rhetoric.

The participation of the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the drills showed the level of US readiness for an invasion has reached a peak, the North's foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday.

An officer from the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, which was set up after the 1950-53 Korean War and stages the drills, played down the North's rhetoric.

''I would say the level of rhetoric is about the same as previous years,'' the officer said by telephone, adding there was nothing unusual about the U.S. aircraft carrier taking part.

The drills come amid a stalemate in six-country talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear programmes.

Pyongyang has refused to return to the talks unless the United States ends a crackdown on firms Washington suspects of aiding the North in illicit activities such as counterfeiting and drug trafficking.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told Reuters on Thursday the North appeared to be signalling a desire to return to the stalled talks, which also involve the South, the United States, Japan, Russia and China.

About 3,000 US troops from overseas will be reinforcing 17,000 of the 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea.

Two drills are being held concurrently -- Foal Eagle exercise as well as Reception, Staging, Onward movement and Integration (RSOI).

RSOI is a largely computer-driven exercise to test the command capabilities to receive US forces from outside the Korean peninsula. The Foal Eagle drill trains and tests the South's defence in combined field operations with U.S. forces.

Despite warming political and commercial ties in recent years, the two Koreas remain technically at war because the Korean War ended in a truce and not a full peace treaty.

Reuters

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