Stormy weather forces SKorea to suspend rescue operation for 46 missing navy sailors

By Young-joon Ahn, AP
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

SKorea suspends underwater rescue operation

BAENGNYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — Stormy conditions forced the South Korean military to suspend the search for 46 sailors missing since a mysterious blast blew apart their navy ship last week, officials said Wednesday, a day after a diver died during the rescue mission.

Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae told reporters that divers could not go down to the wreckage of the Cheonan due to the prospect of rain, high winds and a swift current. Parts of the ship remain submerged in the rough Yellow Sea near Baengnyeong Island, just south of the two Koreas’ maritime border.

Work on salvaging the vessel could start next week, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said Wednesday, according to military officials. Authorities have said the cause of the blast likely won’t be known until the ship is retrieved; they have suggested several scenarios, including that a North Korean mine hit it.

The sailors’ families gathered at a naval base south of Seoul cried and yelled as they demanded that authorities step up the search operation.

Divers have managed to get down to the section where sailors are believed trapped but heard no signs of life inside, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. They attempted to get into a door in the stern Tuesday but made little headway, Rear Adm. Lee Ki-sik said.

Also Tuesday, a 53-year-old diver who lost consciousness during a rescue attempt died and another was treated for injuries.

The 1,200-ton ship went down after an explosion ripped through it Friday night during a routine patrol. Fifty-eight crew members, including the captain, were rescued.

Military officials say the exact cause of the explosion remains unclear, and U.S. and South Korean officials say there is no evidence of North Korean involvement, although Kim, the defense minister, told lawmakers this week that a floating mine dispatched from rival North Korea was one possible explanation for the blast. A mine left over from the 1950-53 Korean War may also have struck the ship, he said.

The military has also not ruled out the possibility of a torpedo attack.

A North Korean defector who once worked for the regime’s spy agency suggested it could have been a suicide attacker, saying marines are trained as “human torpedoes” to drive a bomb toward a target.

But an unidentified North Korean economic official in the Chinese town of Dandong denied North Korea’s involvement in the blast, Yonhap news agency reported from Dandong, which borders North Korea.

A North Korean diplomat in Beijing who was contacted by The Associated Press said he had no information about the sinking.

The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, dismissed as “completely not true” media reports saying a North Korean semi-submersible vessel had been spotted by the Cheonan just before it sank.

The reports on YTN cable network and in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper cited unidentified government and military officials.

Associated Press writer Kwang-tae Kim reported from Seoul and photographer Young-joon Ahn from Baengnyeong Island.

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