(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES with ministry's briefing in paras 2-8, 10-16; RESTRUCTURES and TRIMS)
By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, March 29 (Yonhap) -- If any sailors were trapped and still alive inside part of a wrecked S. Korean warship, they were either too weak or hurt to respond to military rescuers' knocks on the vessel, officials said Monday.
Military divers resumed the search for survivors Monday, hours after the rear part of the vessel, which sank near the sea border with North Korea three days ago, was found. The bottom of the 1,200-ton Navy corvette Cheonan is where many of the 46 missing crew members are presumed to be trapped.
The Cheonan snapped in two after an unexplained explosion in its hull Friday night, while the ship was on patrol near the Yellow Sea border with North Korea. Fifty-eight of the ship's 104 crew members, including the captain, were rescued largely unharmed.
Divers earlier found no signs of survivors inside the rear of the vessel, getting no response when they knocked the hull with hammers. But operations will continue through late in the evening with belief that there are survivors, said Lee Ki-shik of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The clock was ticking for the survival of the missing crew, as oxygen in the ship's waterproof cabins was only enough for those trapped, if any, to survive for a maximum of 69 hours after the ship sank.
"There was no response when military divers knocked on the hull of the ship's rear," Lee said during a press briefing. "Divers went underwater several times, working in a very limited time of about seven to eight minutes each time, but failed to find any survivors."
"But operations will continue through 8 p.m. (Seoul time) when there is the last lull in the current for the day," he said.
The ship's rear, which was located earlier Monday about 50 yards from where the ship exploded and about 40 meters underwater, has been overturned at a 90-degree angle, Lee said.
The front of the navy ship, which was found earlier Sunday, is unlikely to be carrying any survivors, the military said earlier, after rescuers searched around the ship through early Monday.
President Lee Myung-bak ordered the military to use "all the manpower and equipment available to conduct a search operation as fast as possible," and said that rescuers "should not give up hope of more survivors," according to presidential spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye.
While remaining cautious about assuming what sank the ship, Seoul officials appear to be narrowing down the cause of the explosion to the vessel's collision with a mine that might have drifted from North Korea or that has been afloat since the 1950-53 Korean War.
Both South and North Korea have placed floating or submarine mines near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto sea border, since their conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Playing down the possibility of South Korea's own mine sparking the explosion, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said one of thousands of North Korean sea mines placed during the war could be the culprit.
"It is possible that a North Korean sea mine could have drifted into our area," Kim told a parliamentary meeting Monday. "There are no South Korean mines near the Yellow Sea."
Washington and Seoul, however, remained low-key about suspecting Pyongyang's deliberate involvement in the tragedy, despite the fact that the disaster site is close to the scene of a total of three naval clashes that occurred between the two divided Korean states in 1999, 2002 and most recently in November last year.
North Korea has put its coastal military units on heightened alert and increased surveillance near its maritime border with South Korea, as southern warships and helicopters searched the areas for the missing sailors, the JCS said in a report to parliament.
But both Seoul's presidential office and the U.S. Forces Korea have said they have detected "no unusual movements by North Korean forces."
Monday's operations were assisted by a total of 25 military ships including the U.S. 7th fleet's rescue vessel Salvo and South Korea's 14,000-ton amphibious landing ship Dokdo, according to Seoul's defense ministry.
The incident comes amid heightened tension between the two Koreas with Pyongyang saying in recent weeks it is bolstering its defense in response to joint South Korean-U.S. military drills that were held this month.
North Korea does not recognize the western sea border, drawn by the United Nations at the end of the Korean War, and claims that it should be redrawn further south.
The sunken vessel, 88 meters long and 10m wide, was put into service in 1989 and was equipped with missiles and torpedoes, according to navy officials.
The incident is said to be one of South Korea's worst naval disasters.
The country's worst maritime accident occurred in 1974, when 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.
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