SKorean diver dies in the search for survivors of ship that sank near NKorea border

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

SKorean diver in naval search operation

SEOUL, South Korea — The South Korean military says a diver has died while searching for survivors of a naval ship that sank four days ago.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said the diver lost consciousness Tuesday while searching underwater in the turbulent Yellow Sea.

Teams of divers are searching for 46 sailors believed trapped in the wreckage near the Koreas’ maritime border.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

BAENGNYEONG ISLAND, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s president ordered the military on alert Tuesday for any moves by rival North Korea after the defense minister said last week’s explosion that sank a South Korean ship may have been caused by a North Korean mine.

The blast ripped the 1,200-ton ship apart last Friday night during a routine patrol near Baengnyeong Island near the tense maritime border west of the divided Korean peninsula. Fifty-eight crew members, including the captain, were plucked to safety; 46 are missing, with dim prospects for their survival.

Divers geared up to break into the ship Tuesday, Rear Adm. Lee Ki-sik of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters. He said there were no signs of life inside.

President Lee flew to area in the Yellow Sea where the sailors are believed trapped in a sunken segment of their ship. He reviewed the search operations, met with marines stationed on the western island and consoled family members watching the rescue mission, the presidential Blue House said.

Baengnyeong is just eight miles (13 kilometers) from and within sight of a North Korean military base where surface-to-ship guided missiles and artillery are heavily deployed, presidential spokesman Park Sun-kyoo said.

Earlier Tuesday, Lee ordered his military to stay alert for any moves by rival North Korea.

“Since the sinking took place at the front line, the military should thoroughly prepare for any move by North Korea,” Lee told his Cabinet, according to the spokesman. “I want the military to maintain its readiness.”

Military officials say the exact cause of the explosion remains unclear, and U.S. and South Korean officials said there was no evidence of North Korean involvement.

However, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told lawmakers Monday that a floating mine dispatched from North Korea was one of several scenarios for the disaster.

“North Korea may have intentionally floated underwater mines to inflict damage on us,” Kim said.

North Korean suicide squads known as “human torpedoes” may be behind the explosion, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said in a report Tuesday, citing unidentified high-ranking defectors from the North.

Suicide squads operate semi-submersible vessels equipped to carry two bombers and either two torpedoes or floating mines, the paper said, citing a North Korean sailor-turned-defector.

“Acoustic mines” carried by small submarines crawling along at speeds of less than 1.2 mph (2 kph), too slow to register on South Korean sonar radars, are considered particularly effective, the paper cited another defector who served in North Korean intelligence as saying.

Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said no possibility was being ruled out and said the ship must be salvaged before any cause is confirmed.

“Everyone’s imagination has been running wild, posing all sorts of possibilities,” he said. “But we can’t say yes or no to any of them.”

The two Koreas remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. North Korea disputes the sea border drawn by the United Nations in 1953, and the western waters near the spot where the Cheonan went down have been the site of three bloody skirmishes between North and South.

Pyongyang’s state media have not mentioned the ship.

The defense minister said the ship may also have struck a mine left over from the war. Many but not all the 3,000 Soviet-made naval mines North Korea planted during the war were removed, and a mine was discovered as recently as 1984, Kim said.

He insisted there were no South Korean mines off the west coast, and ruled out a torpedo attack, which he said would have been spotted by radar.

Officials have also said an internal malfunction may be to blame. The 1,200-ton Cheonan is designed to carry weapons, and was involved in a previous skirmish with North Korea.

Coast guard footage aired Tuesday by cable network YTN showed men in rubber boats being brought on board to safety, blue searchlights scanning the turbulent waters. Crew members are seen on the quickly tilting deck of the ship’s front end while the rear is already underwater.

Rough waves prevented military divers from accessing the wreckage until Monday, officials said. Divers, aided by a team from four U.S. Navy ships in the region, rapped on the stern with hammers Monday afternoon but got no response, they said.

Aware that the crewmen had only enough oxygen in their watertight cabins to last until Monday evening, divers pumped oxygen into the ship through cracks in the stern, Rear Adm. Lee said.

The mood was somber at a naval base south of Seoul where the families of the missing soldiers were waiting for news. After four days of waiting, they appeared drained and exhausted as they sat silently, refusing to speak to reporters.

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim reported from Seoul and photographer Young-joon Ahn from Baengnyeong Island. AP writers Sangwon Yoon in Seoul, photographer Lee Jin-man in Pyeongtaek and Eric Talmadge in Tokyo also contributed to this report.

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