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(4th LD) S. Korea buries sailors fallen in ship sinking

All Headlines 17:31 April 29, 2010

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, paras 1-5 to update with burial ceremony)
By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, April 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea buried dozens of naval sailors who were killed in last month's sinking of a naval ship in waters near North Korea following a tearful funeral marked by pledges to bring justice to those responsible and reinforce naval defense.

The mass funeral for 46 young sailors was the most emotional part of the tragedy that has gripped South Korea since the 1,200-ton ship Cheonan sank March 26 while on a patrol mission near the Yellow Sea border with North Korea, the scene of three bloody skirmishes between the sides.

A wave of emotion swept through the national cemetery in the central city of Daejeon on Thursday, as distraught family members wailed before an altar of funeral photos and jars of remains of the dead, unwilling to let go of their loved ones.

"Mom has come. Please answer," cried the mother of Petty Officer First Class Suh Dae-ho, embracing Suh's ashes and affectionately passing a hand over his photo as a military band played a dirge.

Tearful relatives later put the jars of ashes in holes in the ground and sprinkled ceremonial handfuls of dirt over them amid long, loud and high-pitched cries.

North Korea is the primary suspect in the sinking, though the communist nation has denied any involvement, and South Korean officials have refrained from openly mentioning Pyongyang without clear evidence.

After studying the vessel's two salvaged halves, investigators blamed an underwater "non-contact" explosion, possibly from a torpedo or a sea mine, as a likely cause. South Korea has been scouring the scene for shrapnel to back suspicions of an attack.

Experts from the United States, Australia, Sweden and Britain have joined the investigation as South Korea seeks to ensure the probe is transparent and objective.

Forty bodies were found trapped inside the sunken ship, but the six others are still missing. The 58 others of the Cheonan's 104 crew members were rescued before the sinking.

Earlier in the day, about 2,800 people, including surviving sailors, attended the funeral at a naval base in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul. It proceeded in a rifle salute, religious rites, a siren salute from all naval ships at anchor at the base and a release of 3,000 black and white balloons, colors that symbolize a navy uniform.

"What happened on March 26 shouldn't have happened. We cannot and should not forgive or forget this," said Adm. Kim Sung-chan, South Korea's chief of naval operations, in a memorial address. "Whoever gave great suffering to our people, we will never sit by and watch. We will track them down until the end and make them pay the price."

After a silent prayer at the start of the service, a solemn-faced President Lee Myung-bak placed the Hwarang Order of Military Merit, a state medal awarded to patriotic service members, in front of each of the portraits of the deceased on a huge, chrysanthemum-laden altar.

Lee's attendance was aimed at awakening "a sense of security crisis," his spokesman said.

Grieving family members, clad in black funeral dresses and suits, sobbed with their heads low while eulogies were read during the nationally televised ceremony. A little boy was seen wiping tears off his mother's face with a handkerchief.

"I'm sorry to leave you all in the Cheonan. I'm sorry we couldn't be with you until the end," one of the survivors, chief petty officer Kim Hyun-rae, said in an eulogy. "Though badly torn in half, the Cheonan hasn't vanished. The Cheonan was inscribed as history in the hearts of the people ... We swear before you that we will make sure the sorrow that parted us from you won't happen again."

After the service, a police-led funeral procession of hearses and dozens of buses carrying relatives left the naval base for the cemetery in Daejeon. Citizens lining the streets threw chrysanthemum flowers toward the procession as national flags flew at half-staff.

In the four days leading up to the funeral, more than half a million people visited memorial altars set up across South Korea to pay their respects to the deceased soldiers.

The sinking was South Korea's worst naval disaster since the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the two sides still technically at war.

jschang@yna.co.kr
(END)

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