Runaway soldier captured after he shot himself, says South Korea

South Korean soldiers get in their military vehicles as they take part in a search and arrest operation near the area of a standoff between troops and a conscript soldier who shot and killed five comrades in Goseong on June 23, 2014. A South Kor
South Korean soldiers get in their military vehicles as they take part in a search and arrest operation near the area of a standoff between troops and a conscript soldier who shot and killed five comrades in Goseong on June 23, 2014. A South Korean military conscript who killed five members of his unit was captured Monday after shooting himself in the side following a standoff with thousands of troops, the defence ministry said. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - A South Korean military conscript who killed five members of his unit was captured Monday after shooting himself in the side following a standoff with thousands of troops, the defence ministry said.

"He shot himself in the side and we have captured him alive," a ministry spokesman told AFP, adding that the 22-year-old sergeant had been taken to hospital.

Thousands of soldiers backed by special forces units and army helicopters had surrounded the conscript, identified by his family name Lim, after he was tracked down Sunday afternoon to a forested area south of the heavily militarised frontier with North Korea.

Armed with a K-2 assault rifle and a stash of ammunition, Lim went on the run on Saturday night after killing five fellow soldiers at a frontline border outpost.

Prior to turning his gun on himself, Lim had spoken via a mobile phone with his parents who had urged him to surrender.

An army officer who requested anonymity told Yonhap news agency that Lim had been in tears when he asked troops to hand the phone over to his father.

"He talked to his parents for several minutes, and they pleaded with him to surrender," the officer was quoted as saying.

Lim had traded fire with his pursuers late on Sunday before digging in for the night in a section of forest outside a village some 10 kilometres from the border.

One platoon leader was wounded in the arm in the exchange and the defence ministry said another soldier was wounded Monday by friendly fire.

Lim was due to be discharged in the next few months after completing his compulsory military service.

The motive behind the shooting was unclear, but army sources said he had difficulty adapting to the military, and psychological evaluators had advised senior officers to pay him special attention.

The incident triggered a massive military manhunt involving more than 4,000 soldiers. After a night on the run, Lim was finally cornered near Myungpa-ri village in eastern Gangwon province.

Around 500 residents, most of them elderly, were evacuated from their homes to a school building as a precaution.

Lim's deadly shooting spree occurred at a guard post next to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) - a buffer strip that runs the full length of the 250-kilometre inter-Korean frontier.

Because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war. Many of the South Korean soldiers on border duty are young male recruits doing their mandatory two-year military service.

These young men make up a large part of the South's 691,000-strong troop presence, compared with 1.17 million in the North.

Most of the victims in Saturday's shooting were conscripts, aged from 19 to 23. The defence ministry issued a "sincere apology" over the incident.

"We pray for the souls of the victims and express our deepest regret for the victims, the injured and their families," it said.

Bullying and cruelty in the barracks have long tarnished the armed forces, and been blamed for suicides and similar shooting incidents.

In July 2011, a 19-year-old marine conscript killed four colleagues in a shooting spree on Ganghwa island near the border. In June 2005, eight soldiers were killed and two seriously wounded when a 22-year-old conscript threw a grenade and sprayed bullets over sleeping colleagues at a frontline guard post north of Seoul.