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Divers to drill hole in sunken S. Korean naval ship to reach possible survivors

All Headlines 09:53 March 30, 2010

By Sam Kim

SEOUL, March 30 (Yonhap) -- Military divers geared up Tuesday to drill a hole into the stern of a sunken South Korean naval ship in desperate efforts to rescue dozens of missing sailors believed to be trapped inside the wreckage, officials said.

Monday evening was the end of the 69-hour window during which rescuers believed the missing crew could survive, prompting them to inject oxygen into the ship using a hose. But no sign of life was detected when they knocked on the hull with hammers in the hope of a response.

The 1,200-ton Navy corvette Cheonan broke in two after an explosion in its hull while on patrol near the tense Yellow Sea border with North Korea, where three skirmishes have taken place in the past 11 years. Fifty-eight of the 104 crew members, including the captain, were rescued largely unharmed, but the 46 others still remained missing.

The ship's rear, which was located Monday about 50 yards from the site of the explosion and about 40 meters underwater, has been overturned at a 90-degree angle, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

"We will attempt to drill a hole in the stern to create access through which we can enter it in the hope of finding any survivors," an official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

He said the task hinges on the force of underwater currents and the muddiness of the water, which could hinder rescuers' view, and added that divers also continued to try to enter the sunken stern through crumpled doors but have made little progress.

Speculation abounds as to what caused the ship to split in half, but officials cautiously raised the possibility of a North Korean mine being the culprit.

"It is possible that a North Korean sea mine could have drifted into our area," Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told a parliamentary meeting Monday. "There are no South Korean mines near the Yellow Sea."

Washington also remained cautious about the possibility of North Korea's deliberate involvement.

"We have no reason to believe that this was involving a third party," James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, told reporters. "Again, obviously, the full investigation needs to go forward. But to my knowledge, there's no reason to believe or to be concerned that that may have been the cause."

Both South and North Korea have placed floating or submarine mines near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto sea border, since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

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."

The rescue operations are being assisted about two dozen military ships including the U.S. 7th fleet's Salvo rescue vessel and South Korea's 14,000-ton Dokdo amphibious landing ship, 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 farther 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.

samkim@yna.co.kr
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