- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2010

BAENGNYEONG ISLAND, South Korea - Weeping, angry relatives of 46 crew members missing after a mysterious explosion sank a South Korean navy ship sailed around the site Sunday, while others criticized the government for lack of results as rescue teams struggled to search for survivors.

No one has been found since an initial rescue of 58 sailors from the 1,200-ton Cheonan, which sank early Saturday near the tense border with North Korea. No bodies have been discovered, either. Still, President Lee Myung-bak refused to give up hope.

The ship had been on a routine patrol with other vessels in the Yellow Sea off South Korea’s western coast. The exact cause of the explosion - one of South Korea’s worst naval disasters - remained 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.

A U.S. military ship would join rescue operations Monday, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.

At a naval base in Pyeongtaek, near Seoul, where other family members awaited news, wails of worry and anguish turned into shouts and screams from relatives demanding answers and results as Defense Minister Kim Tae-young and ruling-party chief Chung Mong-joon visited to console them.

“My son said he would defend the nation, but instead he ended up like this!” one unidentified woman shouted, crying out and holding a framed photo of her son.

The Cheonan sank near Baengnyeong Island, just south of the disputed sea border between the two Koreas. The countries 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 owing to poor underwater visibility and strong currents.

Rescue ships retrieved about 20 life jackets and 15 safety helmets in waters 7 to 18 miles away from the site, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Baengnyeong Island, marines combed beaches to check for any bodies or debris that may have washed ashore.

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.

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

Some relatives Saturday at the naval base that rescued crew members described the Cheonan - which survived a 1999 skirmish with North Korean warships - as old and leaky.

“He was reluctant to go onboard because the ship was so old and faulty,” one weeping wife said Saturday of her missing husband. “I am sure the ship being leaky led to it sinking.”

- Hyung-jin Kim reported from Seoul and Si-young Lee from Baengnyeong Island.

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