South Korea police raid church complex again in hunt for ferry owner

South Korean policemen stand guard in front of the main gate of the Evangelical Baptist Church premises, as church believers sit in front of the police barricade, in Anseong on June 11, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
South Korean policemen stand guard in front of the main gate of the Evangelical Baptist Church premises, as church believers sit in front of the police barricade, in Anseong on June 11, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - Thousands of South Korean police raided the compound of a splinter religious group on Thursday for the second day in a row as part of a manhunt for a fugitive businessman wanted for April's ferry disaster.

The raid into the sprawling church and farming complex in Anseong, 80 kilometres south of Seoul, involved some 3,600 officers, a police spokesman said. TV footage showed riot police forming human barricades with shields around key facilities in the complex where Yoo Byung Eun, 72, a leading member of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea, was believed to have once stayed.

In an operation involving 6,000 police officers on Wednesday, investigators detained five church followers suspected of helping Yoo evade a nationwide dragnet put in place after he defied an official summons to surrender to prosecutors. It was not clear if police had detained anyone after the second raid on Thursday.

Police had raided the church complex three weeks ago, but came away empty-handed, amid reports that Yoo may have fled overseas. Yoo is the patriarch of the family behind the Chonghaejin Marine Co., which owned and operated the 6,825-tonne Sewol ferry which sank on April 16 with the loss of 300 lives, most of them schoolchildren.

He is wanted for questioning on possible charges of embezzlement and criminal negligence, as prosecutors investigate the extent to which the Sewol disaster was caused by a lack of safety standards and regulatory violations.

Yoo has no direct stake in Chonghaejin, but his children and close aides control it through a complex web of holding companies.

A reward of 500 million won (S$615,000) has been offered for information leading to the capture of Yoo and 100 million won for that of his eldest son, Yoo Dae Kyun. A church spokesman has argued that Yoo was being set up as a fall guy for the Sewol disaster, because the government was unwilling to accept responsibility for regulatory failings that contributed to the tragedy.

The church has also offered a 500 million won reward for "those who reveal the truth behind the accident".

Yoo has described himself as an artist and photographer, and was once convicted of fraud when a company under his control went bankrupt.