- Associated Press - Saturday, July 24, 2010

ABOARD USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (AP) — Fighter jets buzzed the skies and submarines cruised underwater Sunday as a flotilla of U.S. and South Korean warships led by a nuclear-powered U.S. supercarrier began exercises that have enraged North Korea.

U.S. officials denied the North’s claims the maneuvers off Korea’s east coast were a provocation, but said they were meant to send a strong message over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that left 46 sailors dead.

The drills, set to run through Wednesday, involve about 8,000 U.S. and South Korean troops, 20 ships and submarines, and 200 aircraft. The USS George Washington, with several thousand sailors and dozens of fighter jets aboard, was deployed from Japan.

“We are showing our resolve,” said Capt. David Lausman, the carrier’s commanding officer.

The exercises will be the first in a series of U.S.-South Korean maneuvers conducted in the East Sea off Korea and in the Yellow Sea closer to China’s shores in international waters.

The U.S. Navy's Aegis destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56), arrives for joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises at Donghae Harbor, South Korea, Saturday, July 24, 2010. North Korea warned Saturday that joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises poised to begin this weekend amount to a military provocation that will draw a "powerful" nuclear response from Pyongyang. (AP Photo/Yonhap)
The U.S. Navy’s Aegis destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56), arrives for ... more >

The exercises also are the first in South Korea to employ the F-22 stealth fighter, which can evade North Korean air defenses.

North Korea has called the drills an “unpardonable provocation” and threatened to retaliate with “nuclear deterrence” and “sacred war.”

The North routinely threatens attacks whenever South Korea and the United States hold joint military drills, which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for an invasion. The United States keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea and another 50,000 in Japan but says it has no intention of invading the North.

Still, the North’s latest rhetoric carries extra weight following the sinking of the Cheonan warship in late March.

Rear Adm. Daniel Cloyd, the top U.S. official in the exercise, said he was confident the United States could respond to any threat. He said no significant action by the North’s military had been observed.

“We are monitoring the region all the time, and we are very confident we can respond to any situation,” he said.

Washington and Seoul blame Pyongyang for the sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan warship near the Koreas’ maritime border. A five-nation team of investigators concluded a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan in what is considered the worst military attack on the South since the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea, which denies any involvement in the sinking, has warned the United States against attempting to punish it.

“Our military and people will squarely respond to the nuclear war preparation by the American imperialists and the South Korean puppet regime with our powerful nuclear deterrent,” the North’s government-run Minju Joson newspaper said in a commentary headlined, “We also have nuclear weapons.”

The commentary was carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

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