Funeral of disaster-hit ferry owner takes place in Seoul under tight security

Policemen transport a stretcher with a body believed to be that of Yoo Byung Eun, who headed the family that owned the operator of the Sewol ferry that capsized in April, killing more than 300 people, into an ambulance at a hospital in Suncheon on Ju
Policemen transport a stretcher with a body believed to be that of Yoo Byung Eun, who headed the family that owned the operator of the Sewol ferry that capsized in April, killing more than 300 people, into an ambulance at a hospital in Suncheon on July 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - The funeral of a South Korean tycoon who was the target of a massive manhunt connected to April's ferry disaster began on Saturday under tight security at the compound of the religious group he led.

Yoo Byung Eun, 73, was the head of the family which owned and operated the Sewol ferry that sank on April 16 with the loss of around 300 lives, most of them schoolchildren.

Yoo's badly decomposed body was discovered in June but it was not identified as his for another six weeks even as police continued a nationwide manhunt for the reclusive billionaire.

Forensic experts were unable to determine the cause of death. Following a 24-hour vigil, Yoo will be buried on Sunday at the compound of the pseudo-Christian religious group he headed in Anseong, 80 kilometres south of Seoul.

Security guards in black suits checked IDs of mourners in cars and buses before waving them through the entrance of the sprawling church and farming complex, TV footage showed.

No media workers were allowed in. A church spokesman warned of litigation against any news media publishing pictures taken inside the compound or from the air during the funeral.

Few mourning slogans or notices about the funeral were put up, but the low-key event was nevertheless likely to attract some 10,000 mourners, Yonhap news agency said.

Four family members - Yoo's wife, his brother, his eldest son and his brother-in-law - were released temporarily from prison Friday and given 52 hours to attend the funeral.

After Yoo ignored repeated summonses for questioning over lax safety standards and regulatory violations in connection with the ferry sinking, state prosecutors had offered a US$500,000 (S$624,145) reward for information leading to his arrest.

The disaster rocked South Korea and triggered a wave of anti-establishment feeling as investigations showed that greed, corruption and a lack of proper oversight had contributed to the tragedy.

Some of the victims' relatives have been camped out in downtown Seoul for weeks to push parliament to pass a law aimed to set up a full, independent inquiry into the sinking. The bill is currently stuck in the National Assembly, with ruling and opposition parties deadlocked over what legal powers any inquiry should be given.

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