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S Korea to salvage sunk warship after calling off rescue

world Updated: Apr 04, 2010 13:41 IST

South Korea prepared on Sunday to salvage a warship that sank more than a week ago near a disputed sea border with North Korea after calling off a dangerous operation to rescue its missing crewmen.

The operation stopped at the request of relatives of the missing sailors late Saturday after rescuers recovered the first body from the sunken warship, the navy said.

"We have called off the operation. From now we will focus on salvaging the wreckage," a navy spokesman told AFP, adding it would take weeks to lift the ship from the sea floor.

The 1,200-tonne Cheonan, crewed by 104 sailors, broke in two and sank on March 26 after a mystery explosion near the maritime border in the Yellow Sea.

A total of 58 people were rescued from the bow section of the 88-metre (290-foot) warship soon after but efforts to locate the missing 46 crew were hampered by bad weather and strong currents.

Navy officials said the body of Senior Chief Petty Officer Nam Ki-Hoon was retrieved from the petty officers' mess hall of the sunken corvette.

After getting confirmation of Nam's death, the families of the missing crew asked the military to halt the rescue.

"We decided to request the military to stop the search and rescue operation and begin work to salvage the hull," Choi Soo-Dong, representing the families, told reporters.

"Divers must not be sacrificed any more," he said.

A navy diver died last week during the rescue operation.

Officials are still searching for answers as to what caused the ship to break in two in the murky waters off Baengyeong Island.

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

Defence Minister Kim Tae-Young said Friday a torpedo might have sunk it but did not indicate who might have fired one.

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

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.

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

A 2,000-tonne sea crane to be used to recover the wreck arrived Saturday near the site where the warship went down. The navy said a US landing ship was also ready nearby.

Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering said its 3,600-tonne crane would join the salvage operation.

A total of four giant cranes and three barges will be used to pull up the front and rear parts of the sunken corvette from the sea floor, navy officials said.

The area around where the Cheonan went down has been crowded with ships and aircraft combing the seabed.

Two sailors died and seven were missing Saturday after their fishing boat, which had been helping in the search, collided with a freighter.

The body of Senior Chief Petty Officer Nam was transferred via helicopter on Friday to a naval command in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, navy officials said, according to Yonhap.

But at his family's request, his funeral will be delayed until the fate of his missing colleagues is confirmed, it reported.

Relatives of the senior officer and the missing sailors have agreed to hold a joint funeral for all the victims of the disaster, it added.