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North Korea seeks to soothe China over border shootings

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea has told China it will punish those responsible for shooting dead three Chinese nationals near the two countries’ border last week, and vowed to prevent any repeat, Chinese state media said on Thursday.

North Koreans are seen on the bank of the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, June 9, 2010. The banner reads "Long live Kim Jong-il General, the sun of the 21st century". REUTERS/Stringer

The isolated North made the effort to soothe China, its sole major economic and political supporter, after North Korean border guards last week shot at the Chinese nationals crossing the river border near the northeast Chinese city of Dandong.

Three were killed and a fourth was wounded.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said both countries were now “further investigating and handling the case”. He provided no other details.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry made a rare public complaint about its neighbor and now North Korea appears to be seeking to placate Beijing.

North Korean border authorities said an initial investigation showed the incident was an “accident”, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

“The North Korean side expressed its grief over the Chinese deaths, and offered condolences to the families of the dead and to the injured, and will severely punish the perpetrators,” said the report.

“The North Korean border security authorities will further investigate this incident and prevent such incidents from recurring.”

The deaths opened a rare public breach between the two communist neighbors, which have generally preferred to keep their quarrels behind closed doors. The border crossers were suspected smugglers, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

North Korea depends on China for much of its oil and food, and Beijing has avoided publicly condemning Pyongyang after Seoul said North Korea was responsible for torpedoing a South Korean naval ship in late March, killing 46 sailors.

China has said it is still assessing the evidence about the sinking and wants all sides to show restraint.

South Korea has asked the U.N. Security Council to act on the incident. As a permanent member of the council, China has the power to veto any resolutions or statements, but it has not said clearly how it will respond to Seoul’s demand.

China’s 1,415-km (880-mile) border with North Korea is guarded by troops on both sides, but the river dividing them is often narrow and accessible to smugglers and refugees passing from the North into much richer China. (Reporting by Chris Buckley; Additional reporting by Huang Yan and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)