South Korea’s military ended its underwater search for dozens of sailors missing from a navy ship that sank from a mysterious blast more than a week ago, and shifted to salvaging the vessel.
Families of the sailors asked the military to suspend the operation for fear of additional casualties among divers after one died and as chances of finding survivors grew increasingly unlikely after Saturday’s discovery of one sailor’s body.
The suspension came hours after divers discovered the body of a senior chief petty officer in the ship’s rear area, the first of the 46 missing sailors to be found.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff said it stopped the underwater search out of respect for the families’ request and will work to recover the 1,200-tonne Cheonan.
Officials have said the salvage effort could last a month.
The vessel exploded on March 26, 2010 and sank a few hours later during a routine patrol, and 58 crew members, including the captain, were rescued soon after.
No cause has been determined for the blast and, despite some speculation, there has been no confirmation of North Korean involvement in the sinking, which occurred near the countries’ disputed sea border in the Yellow Sea off the west coast of the Korean peninsula.
Defence Minister Kim Tae-young has said a floating mine dispatched from North Korea was one possible explanation. A mine left over from the 1950-53 Korean War may also have struck the ship, he said.
Other officials say the cause can only be determined after the ship is recovered.
The sinking was one of South Korea’s worst naval disasters. In 1974, a ship sank off the southeast coast in stormy weather, killing 159 sailors and coast guard personnel. In 1967, 39 sailors were killed by North Korean artillery.
Since their ordeal began, the families of the missing Cheonan sailors have expressed anger at the navy over what they saw as the slow pace of the rescue operation.
Separately, South Korea’s coast guard found the bodies of two of nine fishermen whose boat disappeared as it sailed toward fishing grounds after aiding the Cheonan search operation.
The bodies of one South Korean and one Indonesian fishermen were discovered on Saturday after contact was lost with the boat late Friday, said coast guard official Lee Kyo-min. The search was continuing for another Indonesian and six other South Korean crew members of the fishing boat.
Also, a funeral ceremony was held on Saturday for a military diver who died earlier in the week during an attempt to reach Cheonan sailors possibly trapped in the ship.