- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2010

BAENGNYEONG ISLAND, South Korea (AP) — Weeping, angry relatives of 46 crew members missing after a mysterious explosion sank a South Korean navy ship sailed around the site Sunday as rescue teams struggled to search for survivors.

None has been found since an initial rescue of 58 sailors from the 1,200-ton Cheonan that sank early Saturday near the tense border with North Korea. No bodies have been discovered either. Still, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak refused to give up hope.

The ship was on a routine patrol with other vessels in the Yellow Sea off South Korea’s west coast. The exact cause of the explosion — one of South Korea’s worst naval disasters — remains unclear, and officials said it could take weeks to determine.

Fierce waves and high winds have hampered the search in an area where the two Koreas have fought three bloody naval engagements since 1999. Despite the location of the sinking, North Korea did not appear to be involved.

“We have detected ‘no special movements’ by North Korean forces; however, we, as a command, continue to monitor the situation and remain prepared for any contingency,” Gen. Walter Sharp, chief of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, said in a statement Sunday.

South Korean troops were maintaining “solid military readiness,” the Defense Ministry said. It also said a U.S. military ship would join rescue operations Monday.

The Cheonan sank about a mile from Baengnyeong Island, which is about 10 miles from North Korea. The Koreas remain in a state of war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.

The explosion tore open the rear hull of the Cheonan, shut down its engine, wiped out power and caused the ship to sink a little over three hours later. The ship broke into two pieces, officials said.

Military and coast guard ships, helicopters and divers searched the chilly waters Sunday but made little headway because of poor underwater visibility and strong currents.

Rescue ships retrieved about 20 life jackets and 15 safety helmets in waters 7 to 8 miles from the site, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. Lee ordered officials to “thoroughly investigate” the sinking and make their best efforts to rescue any survivors.

“The president said that utmost efforts must be exerted in the belief that missing crew members are still alive and that we must never lose hope,” the presidential Blue House said.

Later Sunday, Prime Minister Chung Un-chan sailed to the site of the sinking after flying to Baengnyeong Island to review rescue operations. On the island, marines combed beaches to check for any bodies or debris that may have washed ashore.

As hopes faded for the missing crew, about 80 family members aboard a navy patrol boat sailed around the site and watched rescue operations.

“My son! My son!” one crying woman shouted while boarding the ship at a naval base south of Seoul for the journey to the accident area as other relatives wailed in grief.

Officials will be able to determine the cause of the explosion only after the sunken ship is salvaged, a naval officer said Sunday. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because of department policy, said it is likely to take about a month to salvage a ship of that size.

A survivor, Staff Sgt. Shin Eun-chong, 24, told relatives Saturday that he was on night duty when he heard a huge boom behind him that split apart the ship. The vessel started tilting, and his glasses fell off his face as he hit the deck, relatives told the Associated Press.

Some families also vented anger at the military, accusing authorities of a cover-up and saying survivors told them the Cheonan was leaky and in need of repair. They shouted “Liars!” and jumped on a car carrying the rescued ship captain as it drove away.

Hyung-jin Kim reported from Seoul. Associated Press writers Kwang-tae Kim, Sangwon Yoon and Jean H. Lee in Seoul and Esther Hong in Pyeongtaek contributed to this report.

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