Workers salvaging the sunken Sewol ferry have found bone fragments on the vessel, raising hopes briefly that these might belong to the missing victims of the disaster that killed more than 300 people nearly three years ago.
Six bone fragments measuring 4cm to 18cm were found yesterday morning, a Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries official said at a briefing.
But forensic tests later showed that the fragments came from animals and not humans.
All work to secure the ferry to a semi-submersible transport ship has since been suspended, which could delay plans to move it to the Mokpo port in the south-west.
The Sewol sank off the country's south-west coast on April 16, 2014. Most of the victims were teenagers on a school excursion. Nine victims have yet to be accounted for.
South Korea is expected to spend 85.1 billion won (S$106.5 million) to recover the ferry, which was raised last week. Officials said the vessel will be moved to a dry dock after arriving at Mokpo, then disinfected before experts start searching for remains of the missing victims. An investigative team will also examine the ship for clues as to why it sank.
The ferry had originally been scheduled to return to land tomorrow - the same day that ousted president Park Geun Hye, who has been blamed for bungled rescue efforts in 2014, faces arrest over charges linked to the corruption and influence-peddling scandal that led to her downfall.
A Seoul court will hold a hearing tomorrow to decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for her.
A probe found that the country's worst maritime disaster was largely man-made - a result of the illegal redesign of the ship which made it top-heavy, an overloaded cargo bay, an inexperienced crew and cosy ties between the ship operators and state regulators.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised over whether Ms Park's administration had earlier blocked efforts to recover the sunken vessel, as plans to do so were shelved repeatedly from last year.
Student Jeon Seo Yoon, 17, who volunteers at Sewol memorial sites, was surprised to hear that the ferry had been lifted, as she thought it would never happen. "The fact that the ferry is finally raised after Park's impeachment made me a bit angry, because it means she really wanted to hide everything about the ferry tragedy," she said.
Analysts said the timing is too much of a coincidence, and the lifting of the ferry could exert more pressure on Ms Park to explain her mysterious absence in the first seven hours after the ferry sank in 2014, a sore point that became one of the reasons for Parliament to impeach her last December.
The botched rescue operations and half-baked investigation into the sinking are said to symbolise her government's incompetence.
"The timing is very bizarre, very mysterious," Seoul National University law professor Lee Jae Min told The Straits Times. "There are explanations why the ferry is raised at this time but, nonetheless, it raises doubts in reasonable minds."
Officials had cited bad weather, rough currents and technical issues as factors behind why salvage works had taken so long.
But speculation is rife that officials made the decision to raise the ferry only after Ms Park's impeachment on March 10 - which suggests that the ruling party had been dragging its feet.
There are renewed calls to reopen investigations into why the ferry sank, with presidential front runner Moon Jae In of the Democratic Party promising last week to start a new probe to "reveal every single truth" if he is elected.