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(LEAD) Bad weather stalls salvaging of sunken warship

All Headlines 16:52 April 06, 2010

(ATTN: RECASTS lead; UPDATES with ministry's briefing in paras 10-14)
By Shin Hae-in

SEOUL, April 6 (Yonhap) -- Operations to hoist up a sunken naval warship were stalled by bad weather, military officials said Tuesday, frustrating investigators searching for the cause of a mysterious explosion that sank the vessel near the tense border with North Korea last month.

Strong wind and high waves have prevented divers' attempts to link chains to the 1,200-ton Navy corvette Cheonan, officials said, the first phase in salvaging the ship that snapped in two and now lies more than 45 meters underwater.

"We have temporarily suspended operations," said Navy Cdr. Bae Myung-woo, adding the wind was blowing 15-20 knots and the waves were 1.5-2 meters high as of Tuesday morning.

One military diver died last week while battling rough conditions in the Yellow Sea to reach inside and pull out possible survivors from the warship that sank while patrolling near the maritime border with North Korea on March 26. Among 104 shipmates, 58 were pulled to safety, while one was found dead, and 45 remain missing and are feared dead.

Although South Korea has been cautious about speculating on the cause of the late night explosion, attention has increasingly turned to North Korea, as the site of the sinking is near the scene of three deadly naval skirmishes between the two Koreas -- in 1999, 2002 and last year.

North Korea, still technically at war with Seoul as the 1950-53 Korean War ended only in a truce, does not recognize the western sea border referred to as the Northern Limit Line (NLL) that was drawn by the United Nations at the end of the war, claiming that it should be redrawn further south.

Pyongyang has remained silent about the sunken ship.

However, Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the U.S. forces in South Korea, reiterated Washington's stance Tuesday that there is no evidence yet pointing to North Korea's involvement.

"We (South Korea and the United States) watch North Korea very closely... and see no unusual activity at this time," he told a luncheon meeting with the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

With the cause of the disaster remaining elusive, some local media outlets have raised allegations that the military might be withholding information deemed key to finding out what really happened on the night of the sinking.

The defense ministry expressed discomfort over the reports and warned of "stern measures."

"We are highly concerned about the attitude shown by some media outlets," said Won Tae-jae, the defense ministry spokesman. "Such classified information does not only belong to the military but to the whole nation. We will no longer tolerate reports that are threatening our national security."

Some allegations have centered on discrepancies in the time of the explosion given by the military, which was changed several times from 9:45 p.m. to 9:22 p.m., as well as the military's unwillingness to let the survivors of the incident meet the press or disclose details on the condition and location of the sunken vessel.

The military said it will arrange for some of the 58 rescued sailors to meet with families of the missing shipmates and the media Wednesday.

After one lifeless body was found in the rear of the sunken ship over the weekend, relatives asked the military to stop rescue operations and instead focus on salvaging the ship, a process that is expected to take at least 30 more days.

Military divers are working with "extreme care" so as not to touch off any bombs or torpedoes in the sunken ship's storage, but there is "little possibility" of the weapons exploding, defense ministry spokesman Won said.

The Cheonan was carrying 12 MK9 depth charge tracks, six MK32 torpedo tubes and four anti-ship missiles when it exploded, according to military experts, raising concerns as many of the missing sailors are likely to be locked inside the stern of the ship.

A 2,000-ton sea crane to be used to recover the wreckage arrived Saturday near the scene, and a 3,600-ton crane is on the way.

A total of four giant cranes and three barges will be used to lift the front and rear sections of the sunken corvette from the seabed, according to navy officials.


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