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Korean divers remove first bodies from ferry

Three bodies removed from sunken ferry as rescue operation continues for those still missing amid receding hopes.

Last updated: 19 Apr 2014 17:29
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Divers have removed the first bodies from the South Korean ferry that capsized nearly four days ago, the coastguard has said.

"Divers broke through the window of a passenger cabin just before midnight and pulled out three bodies," a coastguard official told AFP news agency on Sunday.

The official said they were the same three bodies that had been spotted, but not retrieved, during an earlier dive.

Rescue teams planned to continue dive missions through the night to the ferry which capsized on Wednesday morning, he said.

Hundreds missing

The confirmed death toll from the disaster now stands at 36 with 266 people still unaccounted for.

The ferry, carrying 476 passengers, many of them schoolchildren, and crew, capsized on Wednesday on a journey from the port of Incheon to the southern holiday island of Jeju.

Some 174 people have been rescued but hopes are fading for those still missing.

Shin Won-Nam, the head of the Emergency Management Centre, has told reporters that it could take weeks, if not months to complete the rescue operation.

No sounds have been detected from within the capsized hull, the coastguard told reporters on Saturday.

Relatives of more than 200 missing children have supplied DNA samples to help identify bodies recovered from the water.

On Saturday, Pope Francis, who is due to make a five-day visit to South Korea in August and is the first pontiff to visit Asia since John Paul II, voiced condolences for the victims of the disaster.

"Please join me in praying for the victims of the ferry disaster in Korea and their families," Francis said in a tweet published on his Twitter account @pontifex.

South Korea has more than five million Catholics - about 10 percent of the population. 

'Crew negligence'

Investigations into the sinking, South Korea's worst maritime accident in 21 years based on possible casualties, have centred on crew negligence, problems with cargo stowage and structural defects of the vessel, although the ship appears to have passed all of its safety and insurance checks.

The ship's 69-year-old captain was arrested early on Saturday, Yonhap news agency said, after coming under scrutiny over witness reports that he was among the first to escape the sinking vessel during its 400km voyage to Jeju.

According to investigators, Captain Lee Joon-seok was not on the bridge at the time the ferry, the Sewol, started to list sharply, with a junior officer at the wheel.

Yonhap said Lee faced five charges including negligence of duty and violation of maritime law. Arrest warrants were also issued for the junior officer and one other crew member for failing in their duty to aid passengers.

It has emerged that the captain ordered people to stay in their cabins because he feared they would be swept out to sea by the current.

Handing over the helm is normal practice on the voyage from Incheon to Jeju, which usually takes 13.5 hours, according to local shipping crew.

The ferry went down in calm conditions and was following a frequently travelled route in familiar waters. Although relatively close to shore, the area was free of rocks and reefs.

Lee has not commented on when he left the ship, although he has apologised for the loss of life.

He was described as an industry veteran by the officials from Chonghaejin Marine Co Ltd, the ship owner, and others who had met him described him as an "expert".

Some media reports have said the vessel turned sharply, causing cargo to shift and the ship to list before capsizing.

Marine investigators and the coastguard have said it was too early to pinpoint a cause for the accident and declined to comment on the possibility of the cargo shifting.

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