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Divers reach part of SKorea warship, no signs of life

Divers today reached part of a South Korean warship that was torn in half by a mystery blast but have heard no sounds of life so far from inside the hull, the military said.

world Updated: Mar 29, 2010 12:46 IST

Divers on Monday reached part of a South Korean warship that was torn in half by a mystery blast but have heard no sounds of life so far from inside the hull, the military said.

Forty-six sailors are missing after the 1,200-tonne corvette the Cheonan sank in the Yellow Sea Friday night near the tense disputed border with North Korea, in one of the country's worst sea disasters.

Divers are trying to establish their fate and gather clues about the cause of the blast. Seoul officials say there is no evidence so far Pyongyang was involved.

The defence ministry told parliament's defence committee that navy divers reached the bow section Monday morning and knocked on the hull with hammers.

There was no response from inside the hull, but minister Kim Tae-Young said this did not necessarily indicate there are no survivors.

On Monday afternoon divers also reached the stern, where most of the missing are thought to be located, but there was no immediate information on what they found.

The ship went down off Baengyeong island near the disputed border, scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999 and 2002 and of a firefight last November.

The front portion was located over the weekend. But divers had been unable to reach it due to strong currents, poor visibility and high waves, stirring anger among families of the missing who demanded swifter salvage efforts.

The stern section was located by sonar late Sunday, the military said.

"The rapid currents and poor visibility under the sea are the biggest stumbling block," Lee Ki-Shik, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a briefing earlier in the day.

"We plan to do the rescue work in the belief that there could be still survivors both in the stern and the bow," Lee said, adding underwater cameras would soon be lowered.

The stern section is 40 metres (132 feet) underwater.

President Lee Myung-Bak has called four emergency security meetings since the sinking but cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the cause.

"Do not give up hope that there could be survivors," he told searchers Monday in a statement. "Look into the causes of the incident thoroughly and leave no single piece of doubt behind."

A total of 58 crewmen were saved soon after the ship went down in near-freezing waters. No one has been rescued since then despite a major air and sea search.

Fourteen navy craft and six coastguard ships backed up by aircraft were involved Monday, plus a 3,200-tonne US salvage ship with 15 divers.

Theories about the cause range from an explosion inside the corvette, which was reportedly carrying torpedoes, depth charges, missiles and other weaponry; a drifting mine possibly dating back to the 1950-53 war; or a torpedo attack from the North.

Defence ministry spokesman Won Tae-Jae said a mine could be "one possibility" behind the disaster, although Defence Minister Kim told the legislators the South does not deploy mines in the Yellow Sea in peacetime.

US and South Korean military officials say no unusual movements have been detected by the North, which has said nothing about the incident.

Newspapers called for calm until the cause is established.

"Anything could have caused the explosion, but we should not jump to conclusions without any hard evidence," the best-selling Chosun Ilbo said.

Dong-A Ilbo called for patience until final facts were revealed but added: "If North Korea is behind this, we will need a firm and strong payback."