Stormy weather forces SKorea to suspends search for 46 missing navy sailors

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

SKorea suspends underwater search operation

BAENGNYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — Stormy conditions forced the 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 remained moored in the rough Yellow Sea near Baengnyeong Island, just south of the two Koreas’ maritime border.

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

An explosion ripped the 1,200-ton ship apart Friday night during a routine patrol, officials said. 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.

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.

However, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told lawmakers earlier in the week that a floating mine dispatched from 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 not ruled out the possibility of a torpedo attack, Navy Chief of Staff Kim Sung-chan said Tuesday.

It could also be the work of a suicide attacker, a North Korean defector who once worked for the regime’s spy agency said.

North Korean operates suicide squads known as “human torpedoes,” Chang Jin-seong, a poet who fled North Korea in 2004, wrote on his blog. “Marines are trained to drive the bombs toward the target,” he wrote.

The Chosun Ilbo newspaper said a North Korean submersible or semi-submersible vessel disappeared around the time of the ship’s sinking and has since returned to its base north of Baengnyeong Island. The report cited an unidentified government source with access to satellite pictures.

The source said the disappearance wasn’t unusual and that it would be difficult to connect it to Friday’s explosion.

Won said the Defense Ministry had no comment.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, phoned his South Korean counterpart, Gen. Lee Sang-eui, to offer his condolences.

“We are trying to work with the ROK Navy to make the best of what is obviously a very difficult situation for them right now,” he said, referring to South Korea by the initials of its official name, the Republic of Korea.

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

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