North Korea warns South's airliners during drills

SEOUL, March 5 (Reuters) - North Korea warned on Thursday it might shoot down South Korean commercial airliners flying near its territory during annual U.S.-South Korean military drills next week, ratcheting up threats against it capitalist neighbour.

"Security cannot be guaranteed for South Korean civil airplanes flying through the territorial air of our side and its vicinity ... above the East Sea of Korea (Sea of Japan) in particular, while the military exercises are under way," the North's KCNA news agency quoted a statement from a government official as saying.

The prickly communist state raised tensions in recent weeks by threatening to attack the South and preparing its longest-range missile for a launch.

The Taepodong-2 missile is designed to carry a weapon as far as Alaska, but has never flown successfully.

The North has said it is preparing to launch a satellite and has the right to do so as part of its peaceful space programme. North Korea is barred from test-firing its ballistic missiles under United Nations sanctions.

South Korea and the United States have held the military drills for years without major incident. North Korea regularly criticises them as "a prelude to invasion and nuclear war".

The two Koreas are technically still at war and station about 1 million troops near their respective sides of the Demilitarised Zone buffer that has divided the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an a ceasefire.

The United States stations about 28,000 troops in the South to support South Korea's 670,000 soldiers. The impoverished North is one of the world's most militarised states with about 1.2 million troops. (Reporting by Yoo Choonsik and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Paul Tait)