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South Korea suspends underwater search operation

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 on Wednesday, a day after a diver died during the rescue mission.

world Updated: Mar 31, 2010 13:00 IST

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 on 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 Korea's 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 on Tuesday but made little headway, Rear Adm. Lee Ki-sik said.

Also on Tuesday, a 53-year-old diver who lost consciousness during a rescue attempted to died and another was treated for injuries. The sailor's 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 on 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 US and South Korean officials say there is no evidence of North Korean involvement.

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 on 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 was'nt 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 Korea's General 'Lee Sang-eui', to offer his condolences.

"We are trying to work with the ROK (Republic of Korea) 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 ROK.