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INCHEON, South Korea — Korean War veterans, politicians and South Korean and U.S. military leaders laid wreaths Thursday in this coastal city where Gen. Douglas MacArthur launched an invasion to break the back of advancing communist troops in 1950.

Spelled Inchon until 2000, the city has more recently been the scene where scores of South Koreans have been injured in violent protests as civic groups call for the demolition of a statue honoring MacArthur.

But there were no protests Thursday at Freedom Park or the Inchon Landing Operation Memorial during ceremonies commemorating the 55th anniversary of the “Inchon Landing.” Instead, hundreds of veterans — most of them former South Korean marines — were on hand decked out in camouflage uniforms and aviator shades.

The staunchly pro-American veterans, some of whom fought in the Inchon Landing, have been fanatical about guarding the area and have clashed repeatedly with civic groups calling for the destruction of the statue and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula.

The protesters say the statue, erected in 1957, represents the beginning of the U.S. military presence in South Korea, which they claim is unnecessary and unwanted.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun commented on the controversy during a visit to New York on Wednesday during a speech to South Korean residents of the state.

“We should not manage the South Korea-U.S. relationship in such a way as to pull down the statue,” he said, according to news reports.

“We should not insult people just because we have different perceptions and evaluations of history.”

Maj. Gen. Duane D. Thiessen, commander of Marine Forces Korea and U.S Forces Korea assistant chief of staff, Incheon Mayor Ahn Sang-soo and Republic of Korea Marine Corps commandant Lt. Gen. Kim Myung-kyun were among guests who met early Thursday morning at the Naval Sector Defense Command’s headquarters in Incheon to board a patrol boat for a quick trip into the port.

Two groups gathered at the side of the boat to drop wreaths into the water to honor those lost in the battle, touted as the pivotal moment in the Korean War and one of the most famous battles in history.

Once back on land, a long convoy of vehicles followed a police escort to Freedom Park, where the guests took turns presenting wreaths and flowers at the base of MacArthur’s statue.

Another convoy brought the visitors to the Inchon Landing Operation Memorial, where platoons of South Korean troops stood in formation and veterans from across the country were honored for their service.

Mayor Ahn addressed the issue of those who want to destroy the memorial.

“All of the citizens, including myself, will protect the statue,” he said. His statement was met with a roar of approval from the veterans.

“We are well aware that the success of the then-doubted operation became a crucial turning point for the war,” he said. “Our courageous joint forces, including many of the veterans here today, were able to carry out a successful counterattack against the enemy.”

Prior to his speech, Thiessen stood silently at the base of the memorial, head bowed in prayer in front of a wreath from USFK, the Combined Forces Command and the U.N. Command. Straightening, he snapped a salute.

“The landing at Inchon was one of the most significant and successful operations in the history of amphibious warfare, but it was a great deal more than that,” Thiessen told the crowd.

“This daring and ingenious operation saved the fledgling Republic of Korea from utter destruction, freed its citizens and created a spirit of victory and confidence.

“Due to the noble and selfless sacrifice of thousands of Korean and United Nations servicemembers, the Republic of Korea has achieved spectacular progress and prosperity,” he said. The Republic of Korea is the official name of South Korea.

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