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Seoul responded by unleashing its own barrage of K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers and scrambling fighter jets.

Officials in Seoul said there could be considerable North Korean casualties but the exact toll wasn’t clear Wednesday.

North Korea’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper published a military statement accusing South Korea of triggering the exchange, but did not mention any casualties on either side.

“The South Korean puppets should clearly know that countering the firing of the provocateurs with merciless strikes is the mode of our military’s counteraction,” resident Ri Myong Hun told APTN in Pyongyang.

At a military hospital in Seongnam, just outside of Seoul, relatives wailed in grief as they filed out of a memorial Wednesday for the two dead marines.

“Bring him back!” cried out Kim O-bok, 50, mother of 22-year-old marine Seo Jeong-woo, as she collapsed.

The deadly exchange of fire came just six weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s youngest son and anointed heir, Kim Jong-un, made his international public debut by appearing at a massive military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.

It also came days after Pyongyang showed off its uranium enrichment facility to a visiting U.S. scientist, raising new concerns about its pursuit of atomic weapons.

The government in Pyongyang has sought to consolidate power at home ahead of a leadership transition and hopes to gain leverage abroad before re-entering international talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs.

Kwang-tae Kim reported from Seoul. AP writers Ian Mader and Foster Klug in Seoul, and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.