South Korea's greatest landmark destroyed

A suspected arson attack left South Korea's greatest landmark in ruins today, destroying the centuries-old wooden structure atop the Namdaemun gate that was deemed the country's top national treasure.

The fire broke out yesterday at the 610-year-old gate that once formed part of a wall that encircled the capital Seoul. The structure later collapsed as firefighters tried to tackle the blaze.

Lee Sang-joon of the National Emergency Management Agency, said arson was suspected, but police said it was too early to say for sure what caused the blaze.

"We should investigate by considering all possibilities," said Kim Young-soo, head of the central Seoul police station handling the case.

Some 360 firefighters worked to bring the blaze under control, Mr Lee said, adding that no one was injured in the accident.

President-elect Lee Myung-bak visited the scene of the fire and condemned the destruction of Namdaemun, the namesake of Seoul's central district and a major tourist attraction.

"People's hearts will ache," he told officials briefing him.

The two-tiered wooden structure was renovated in the 1960s, when it was declared South Korea's top national treasure, and again in 2005. The government opened the gate, officially known as Sungnyemun, to the public in 2006 for the first time in nearly a century.

The gate had been off-limits to the public since Japanese colonial authorities built an electric tramway near the gate in 1907. Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945.

The Cultural Heritage Administration said it would take at least three years to fully restore the gate.

"There is no problem in restoring the gate to its origin," Kim Tae-young, an administration official said, adding that detailed plans were made after the gate was measured in 2006.

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