South Korea on Thursday salvaged part of a sunken warship along with the bodies of 25 sailors trapped inside, a move which could provide clues to its sinking near the North Korean border three weeks ago.
A giant floating crane lifted the stern section of the 1,200-tonne corvette, which was split in two by what survivors called a big external explosion on March 26 with the loss of 46 lives.
Military officials said 25 bodies, mostly in their 20s, had been found by the evening. Two were recovered earlier in the month, leaving 19 still missing. A total of 58 crewmen were rescued soon after the disaster in the Yellow Sea.
The battered grey stern of the Cheonan was hoisted on to a barge to be taken to a naval base for examination. The bodies were being flown by helicopter to the base.
The disputed Yellow Sea border was the scene of deadly naval clashes between the North and South in 1999 and 2002 and of a firefight last November, which left a North Korean patrol boat in flames.
South Korea's defence minister has raised the possibility that a torpedo or mine may have hit the Cheonan. The government has not so far accused Pyongyang of involvement but the incident has raised cross-border tensions.
South Korea has launched a multinational investigation into the disaster to ensure the eventual findings cannot be disputed.
After the wreckage was placed on the barge, 38 civilian and military investigators including two US experts began examining the stern, Yonhap news agency quoted military officials as saying.
More than 120 local experts, along with seven Americans and three Australians, will search for clues to the cause of the sinking -- a process that could take weeks.
Four experts from Sweden were expected to join the probe.
President Lee Myung-Bak said he could not find words to console the bereaved families. "The people will have the same feelings as mine," his spokesman quoted him as saying.
KBS television showed navy Seals and hard-hatted salvage workers standing on the deck after the stern was lifted slowly above the surface in the morning. They rigged a huge net across the severed edge of the hull to stop debris falling out.
"It seems that the ship was broken apart by a very powerful impact," former navy admiral Ahn Ki-Seok told the TV station.
The bow section is expected to be raised in about 10 days.