Divers to search South Korean wreck for survivors

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The South Korean Navy searches for possible survivors earlier today

The South Korean Navy searches for possible survivors earlier today

Family members of missing South Korean sailors visited an area near where the Choenon went down

South Korean military divers will attempt later today to reach the stern of the naval frigate torn apart by a mystery explosion in an attempt to discover the fate of the 46 crewmen still missing after the 290-foot Cheonan was sunk on Friday night.

A total of 58 crewmen were saved soon after the Cheonan went down south of Baengnyeong island in the Yellow Sea. No bodies have yet been retrieved, feeding families' hopes that their sons and husbands might still be alive inside their watertight cabins.

A successful dive to the stern portion, which was discovered around 1300 feet (40 m) underwater late on Sunday, could also provide clues to the cause of the blast that caused the worst disaster in the country's recent naval history.

The 1,3000-tonne warship went down amid a string of islands in waters bitterly contested by North Korea. But security officials in Seoul, the South Korean capital, said there was no evidence that the North was to blame.

A major air and sea search that uinvolved 14 navy craft and six coastguard ships backed up by aircraft, as well as a 3,3000-tonne US salvage ship with 15 divers located the front portion of the boat at the weekend, although high winds and strong currents made it impossible for divers to reach.

But it is in the stern section, located about 30000 feet (2300 metres) away where most of the missing are thought to be located. Divers will attempt to reach both sections at 8.00 pm local time (13000 GMT) today.

"The rapid currents and poor visibility under the sea are the biggest stumbling block," Lee Ki-Shik, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told erporters.

"We plan to do the rescue work in the belief that there could be still survivors both in the stern and the bow," Mr Lee said, adding underwater cameras would soon be lowered.

President Lee Myung-Bak has called four emergency security meetings since the sinking but cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the cause.

"Do not give up hope that there could be survivors," he said in a statement. "Look into the causes of the incident thoroughly and leave no single piece of doubt behind."

The ship’s captain, Choi Won-il, who joined the search for survivors after being rescued, described the moment the ship went down. He said: “There was the sound of an explosion and the ship keeled to the right. We lost power and telecommunications.

“I was trapped in the cabin for five minutes before my colleagues broke the window in and let me out. When I got out, the stern had disappeared.”

The Cheonan had been on routine patrol near Baengnyeong, a heavily garrisoned outpost that lies off the North Korean coast. The maritime boundary has been disputed since the ceasefire that ended fighting in the Korean war in 1953.

Theories about the cause range from an explosion inside the corvette, which was reportedly carrying torpedoes, depth charges, missiles and other weaponry; a drifting mine; or a torpedo attack from the North.

Residents of a nearby island, well used to naval and artillery exercises by the rival nations, said they heard an unusually intense burst of naval gunfire for 15 minutes around the time that the ship began to founder after an explosion in its stern.

But sensitive surveillance and satellite data showed there were no North Korean units in the area, leading to speculation that the ship had hit a mine. The defence ministry later said a ship fired at a radar contact that turned out to be birds.

On Monday, North Korea's military issued a stern warning to the U.S. and South Korea against engaging in "psychological warfare" by letting journalists into the Demilitarized Zone.

"If the U.S. and the South Korean authorities persist in their wrong acts to misuse the DMZ for the inter-Korean confrontation despite our warnings, these will entail unpredictable incidents including the loss of human lives in this area for which the U.S. side will be wholly to blame," the military said in a statement carried by Pyongyang's state-owned Korean Central News Agency.

The statement did not mention the Cheonan.

The Koreas fought fatal naval skirmishes in the area in1999 and 30002.

In the latter clash, four South Korean sailors were killed. Vessels also exchanged fire in the area in 30004 and 30009.