(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES throughout)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL/BUDAPEST, June 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korean and Hungarian workers carried out joint operations on Saturday to search for 21 missing victims of this week's tourist boat sinking in Budapest, officials said, although high waters and strong currents remain tough challenges.
They conducted surface-level searches up to 50 kilometers down the Danube River from the site of Wednesday's disaster that left seven Koreans dead and 21 people missing, including 19 Koreans.
The South Korean team, consisting of staff from the Navy and fire agency, was to search the river three times on the day with four boats provided by the Hungarian authorities.
In response to requests by South Korea and Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria have also been conducting search operations in parts of the Danube River.
Underwater operations are expected to come later due to the adverse conditions. Divers plan to determine whether to begin full-scale operations in the river on Monday, though they could proceed earlier than that, officials said.
On Wednesday night, the sightseeing boat carrying 33 Koreans and two Hungarian crew members collided with a Swiss cruise ship, causing it to capsize and sink. Hungarian police have detained the 64-year-old Ukrainian captain of the cruise ship.
During Saturday's search, the Korean and Hungarian authorities tried to send underwater drones to where the sunken ship lies but failed to do so due to strong currents.
"We brought sonar systems and underwater drones from Austria, the Czech Republic and Norway, but could not use the drones due to excessively strong currents," a South Korean official told reporters.
The search workers also found that the ill-fated ship lies 8.1 to 9.3 meters underwater, deeper than the 6 meters that was initially estimated.
Since Friday, Seoul's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has been in Budapest to oversee the South Korean team's search operations and ensure coordination with Hungary.
Later in the day, the minister was to meet the victims' families who have arrived in Hungary.
Alongside the search operations, the Hungarian authorities also plan to resume preparations to salvage the hull of the boat out of the water.
The authorities have been mulling when to begin the salvage operations in earnest, while taking into account the adverse river conditions.
Seoul has formed an emergency response team consisting of 53 people, including staff from the foreign ministry, police, the National Intelligence Service and other agencies, to support search operations and ensure coordination with Hungary.
It has also decided to send four professional counselors to Budapest to support the victims' families.
Among the victims' family members, 43 arrived in Budapest the previous day. Another six are to arrive there later.
In Seoul, Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-ho presided over a government disaster management session, reiterating the government will put all its effort into searching for the missing.
"We are concentrating all our efforts in all areas, including expanding the scope of search operations and crafting measures to prevent any damage to or loss of bodies during the work to salvage the hull out of the waters and search the vessel," Lee added.
South Korea's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae has operated its crisis management center around the clock to check on progress in the search operations in Budapest.
In a message to South Korean Interior Minister Chin Young, Hungary's Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said that his government will make all-out efforts to search for the missing South Koreans and investigate the cause of the sinking.
In a reply, Chin called for active cooperation in supporting the search operations and handling and transporting the deceased.
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