South Korea police storm church compound in search 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. South Korean police raided the religious commune seeking t
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. South Korean police raided the religious commune seeking the arrest of a businessman linked to a ferry that sank and killed more than 300 people as pressure mounted on the authorities for failing to catch him for more than three weeks. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL(AFP) - Thousands of South Korean police forced their way into the compound of a splinter Christian group on Wednesday in their search for a fugitive businessman wanted over April's ferry disaster.

Live television reports showed police officers, some in full riot gear, streaming into the sprawling church and farming complex at around 8.00am local time in Anseong, 80 kilometres south of Seoul. A spokesman for the Gyeonggi province police force said 6,000 officers were involved in the raid.

The huge operation came a day after President Park Geun Hye urged police and prosecutors to step up a nationwide manhunt for Yoo Byung Eun, 72, a leading member of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea. Yoo is the patriarch of the family behind the Chonghaejin Marine Co. - the company that owned and operated the 6,825-tonne Sewol passenger ferry which sank on April 16 with the loss of 300 lives, most of them schoolchildren.

"Yoo must be brought to justice," Ms Park told a cabinet meeting. 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.

Prosecutors have offered a reward of close to 500 million won (S$615,000) for information leading to the capture of Yoo and 100 million won for that of his eldest son, Yoo Dae Kyun.

Police had raided the church complex in Anseong three weeks ago but came away empty-handed, amid reports that Yoo may have fled overseas.

The main target of Wednesday's large-scale operation was not immediately clear. TV reports suggested the police were still hoping to find Yoo and his son, while the Yonhap news agency said the main targets were two senior church followers believed to have helped Yoo evade capture.

The live footage showed police searching the compound's main church building. Prosecutors were not immediately available for comment.

Yonhap said church followers had erected a barricade at the entrance to the complex, but made no move to block the police after they forced their way through.

The operation also came a day after the trial opened of 15 of the Sewol's surviving crew. The captain and three of his senior crew members are charged with "homicide through wilful negligence" and could face the death penalty if convicted.