In a sudden predawn stick, the South Korean military regained control today of the city of Kwangju, where citizens last week fought in the streets in a violent protest against military rule.
Troops and tanks struck into the center of the city at about 3:30 a.m. (2:30 p.m. Monday EDT) and reports from the scene said there was fierce fighting at a public park and at the provincial capitol building where young militants resisted with weapons seized last week.
The martial law command announced here that two civilians were killed and more than 200 persons arrested. Four soldiers were reported wounded.
According the police reports from Kwangju available here, fierce fighting between troops and armed militants in a public park continued for more than a half hour and widespread shooting occurred at the provincial headquaters.
The official accounts said resistance was not strong but the independent reports said the fighting lasted about three hours before young militants were subdued in the capitol building.
The Associated Press gave this account from Kwangju:
Using tanks, machine guns and assault rifles, paratroopers attacked the provincial capitol building that had been the insurgent's command post and captured it in a fire fight that lasted nearly three hours. It appeared that casualties would be substantially higher than the authorities announced in Seoul.
A Col. Kim, who refused to give his first name, called it "a bitter fight." He told reporters he had instructed his soldiers "not to shoot at anybody unless they shoot at us, and they fired first." He also said that when the firing stated he told his men to "shoot at their legs."
After the battle for the capitol, AP reporters saw 60 to 70 persons being led away across the plaza in front of the building, including several young women and a boy about 10 years old whom soldiers said they had found inside the building.
The fight for the rebel's stronghold began at about 4 a.m. and there was heavy firing for nearly two hours as armored vehicles rolled into the central plaza, with tanks firing at least three salvos. Sporadic shooting continued until 7 a.m.
Col. Kim said the only civilian casualties were among the insurgents who holed up in the capitol with a stockpile of several thousand weapons and defied demands to surrender.
First indications of the impending attack came at about 2 a.m. when the rebels were given an ultimatum, apparently by telepohone, that they had until 4 a.m. to lay down their arms. Students streamed out of another building on the plaza and ran to the capitol building, shouting, "They're coming."
They began distributing rifles from the stockpile to others who gathered at the building. University students sent about 40 high school students away, telling them they were "too young."
Before the assault began, small military observation planes flew low over the city, using loudspeakers to warn residents to stay in their homes and calling on the rebels to give up.
A radio station, in an English-language broadcast, said, "Foreigners, whoever you are and whatever your mission is, don't come out. The military is conducting an operation to eliminate to rioters. Please keep inside your buildings and don't come out."
There were no reports of foreigners being injured, the AP account from Kwangju concluded.
The military command, in its report here in Seoul, said the troops were sent in to "save innocent people."
The sudden strike against the city of 800,000 South Korea's fourth largest, brought to an end the only serious resistance to the martial law imposed May 17 throughout the country -- and the imprisonment that night of scores of opposition leaders. A group of Army generals now exercise power, although a president and Cabinet are still nominally in office. The National Assembly has been barred from holding meetings.
Kwangju, located in the southwest, had been the only center of strong protest. After paratroopers violently suppressed a student demonstration on May 18, tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets and attacked the troops, finally driving them out last Wednesday. More than 100 deaths have been verified in that fighting, with the toll belived to be much higher.
Negotiations for a peaceful settlement stalled over the weekend, in part because young militants refused to surrender captured weapons, and the Army moved in heavy reinforcements to ring the city with troops and tanks. t
The martial law command claimed that its drive into the city this morning was intended to "save innocent lives."
This morning, according to police reports available here, all phone communications were cut off at 3 a.m. and the assault began a half hour later. According to a reliable report, the military had secretly penetrated earlier by sending a special force in civilian clothes to be available at key points when the troops entered.
The police accounts acknowledged that there was fierce fighting at Kwangju Park, where the militants reportedly had dug foxholes anticipating the assault.
Military vehicles roamed the streets broadcasting messages of warning to keep citizens in their homes.
The military strike came after several days of intermittent talks with citizens and the young militants who controlled the provincial capitol building.
For four days, the citizen's committee had attempted to negotiate a peaceful restoration of order that would prevent another round of street combat. Their key demand was that troops should not reenter the city.
As late as Sunday afternoon, the committee was advising citizens that it had received assurances from the martial law commander that troops would not be sent back into Kwangju.