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S Korea recovers first body from missing navy crew: Yonhap

world Updated: Apr 03, 2010 17:35 IST
AFP
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South Korean rescuers on Saturday recovered the first body from the 46 missing crew of a warship that sank last week after a mystery explosion near North Korea's maritime border, Yonhap news agency said.

Divers retrieved the body of Senior Chief Petty Officer Nam Ki-Hoon from the mess hall of the sunken 1,200-tonne corvette Cheonan, Yonhap said, citing military officials.

The 88-metre (290-foot) warship went down on March 26 following an unexplained explosion which tore the vessel in two near the disputed maritime border with North Korea.

A total of 58 people were rescued from the bow section of the ship soon after the sinking but efforts to locate the missing 46 crew have been hampered by bad weather and strong currents.

A week after the disaster, officials are still searching for answers as to what caused the ship to break in two in the murky waters off Baengyeong Island in the Yellow Sea.

Defence ministry and presidential officials have dismissed media reports that the ship had been tracking North Korean submarines at the time.

Seoul has not cited any evidence the North was involved, although the defence minister has said a North Korean mine -- either drifting or deliberately placed -- might have caused the disaster.

South Korea's navy, backed by fishing boats and US military divers, has been struggling against high waves and strong currents to explore the hull sections of the sunken warship where many of the missing sailors could have been trapped.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman earlier said the divers had groped their way into the entrance of the mess hall of the ship but found it filled with water.

Other divers examined the captain's chamber and the communications centre in the broken wreckage of the sunken corvette.

Divers' attempts to go deeper inside the hull were being hampered by wires and debris detached from the ceiling and walls, he told AFP.

Officials suspect most of the missing are in the rear section of the hull.

No one has officially declared all the missing sailors to be dead, even though the air in any watertight compartments would likely have been used up.

The area where the warship went down has been crowded with ships and aircraft, which have been combing the area in a search and rescue operation.

A sailor died and eight were missing Saturday after their fishing boat, which had been helping in the search, collided with a freighter, maritime police said.

"We've captured the Taiyo 1, a Cambodian-registered 1,472-ton freighter, which was apparently involved in the collision," an Incheon Maritime Police spokesman told AFP.

The fishing boat was one of 10 trawlers helping with the search.

The disaster site is close to the disputed border which was the scene of deadly naval clashes between North and South Korea in 1999 and 2002 and of a firefight last November.

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