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Updated: April 1, 2010 16:26 IST

Weather prevents dive searches for South Korea sailors

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Family members of victims of the sunken South Korean naval ship Cheonan cry during a press conference at the naval base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. Photo: AP.
Family members of victims of the sunken South Korean naval ship Cheonan cry during a press conference at the naval base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. Photo: AP.

A second day of bad weather and rough seas on Thursday prevented divers from resuming searches for 46 sailors missing since a mysterious blast blew apart their South Korean navy ship last week, officials said.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said more than 100 military divers were on standby to go down to the wreckage of the Cheonan, but would hold off due to rain, strong winds, rough waves and low visibility. Parts of the ship remain submerged in the rough Yellow Sea near Baengnyeong Island, just south of the two Koreas’ maritime border.

A crane was expected to arrive at the accident site later on Thursday to prepare for salvaging the vessel, Defence Ministry spokesman Won Tae—jae told reporters. Officials have said the salvage effort could last a month.

Authorities have said the cause of the blast likely won’t be known until the ship is retrieved; they have suggested several scenarios, including that a North Korean mine hit it.

Divers have 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.

A 53—year—old diver who lost consciousness during a rescue attempt died on Tuesday.

The 1,200—ton ship went down after an explosion ripped through it on Friday night during a routine patrol. Fifty—eight crew members, including the captain, were rescued.

President Barack Obama offered South Korean President Lee Myung—bak his support and condolences. The White House said on Wednesday that Mr. Obama told Mr. Lee that the thoughts and prayers of the U.S. are with the victims and those missing.

Military officials say the exact cause of the explosion remains unclear, and U.S. and South Korean officials say there is no evidence of North Korean involvement.

The Defence Ministry said on Thursday that another South Korean navy ship patrolling near the accident site after the explosion opened fire at what it initially believed was a North Korean vessel sailing away after attacking the Cheonan.

But it said the object later turned out to be a flock of birds. It said South Korean military hasn’t obtained any evidence that a North Korean vessel was sailing near the site at the time.

Defence Minister Kim Tae—young, however, told lawmakers this 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 also not ruled out the possibility of a torpedo attack.

A North Korean diplomat in Beijing who was contacted by The Associated Press said on Wednesday he had no information about the sinking.

Meanwhile, assistant U.S. Secretary of State Kurt Campbell plans to visit Seoul on Friday for talks with South Korean officials on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s possible trip to China and how to resume stalled talks on ending the North’s nuclear programmes, Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified diplomatic source.

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