Parents of South Korea ferry victims complete 46-km protest march

SEOUL (AFP) - Grieving parents of the victims of last year's South Korean ferry sinking completed a 46-kilometre marathon march Sunday to call for an independent probe into the tragedy.

More than 600 people, including relatives of 250 high school students killed in the sinking, marched across Seoul for two days to protest what they say is the government's attempt to influence the investigation.

The event was held ahead of the emotional first anniversary of the disaster, which left more than 300 dead or missing after the overloaded Sewol ferry sank off the country's southeast on April 16, 2014.

The accident - blamed by many on regulatory failings, official incompetence and the ship's illegal redesign - deeply traumatised the nation and sparked soul-searching about lax safety standards in the Asia's fourth-largest economy.

Some of the parents taking part in the march had newly shaven heads - a symbol of protest and determination - and held black-ribboned framed portraits of their dead children.

They were joined by hundreds of supporters, many of them teenagers, who held banners slamming the government.

Over the past year, families have repeatedly staged street protests and sit-ins, demanding a meeting with President Park Geun Hye and urging her to deliver on her promise to continue the search for the still missing bodies and to ensure a thorough probe into the disaster.

Following months of political bickering, Seoul lawmakers passed a bill in November launching an independent probe, led by the 17-member committee.

But some committee members accused Seoul of trying to hamper the probe and contain potential political fallout by appointing state officials to key posts in the committee.

During the Sunday's march, many bystanders clapped, cheered or wept as they watched the parents march in the rain, followed by the long line of supporters who walked in silence.

"We have marched all this way because the government and the president did not keep their promise to get to the bottom of this tragedy," said Jun Myung Sun, clutching a framed portrait of his son who died in the tragedy.

During a candle-lit vigil held near the presidential palace, the marchers chanted slogans, including "Punish those responsible!" and "Stop insulting the families!".

More than 50 people have been put on trial on charges linked to the sinking, including 15 members who were among the first to climb into lifeboats.

But many critics including the victims' families have called for bigger efforts to investigate what they say root cause of the problem, including cozy ties between businesses and regulators.