South Korea considers salvaging sunken Sewol ferry

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean President Park Geun Hye promised on Monday to consider raising the Sewol ferry that sank a year ago with the loss of more than 300 lives, in response to an emotional protest by victims' relatives.

"I will actively consider salvaging the ship after accepting the opinions of relatives of those still missing and experts," Park's official website quoted her as saying during a meeting with senior aides.

The overloaded Sewol was carrying 476 people, including 325 high school students, when it sank off the south-east coast on April 16 last year.

Only 75 students survived.

Ahead of next week's first anniversary of the tragedy, hundreds of parents of the dead students - some with their heads shaved and clad in white mourning robes - marched 35 km to Seoul from their hometown Ansan over the weekend.

They were joined by hundreds more supporters for a rally in the capital on Sunday that called on the government to raise the sunken vessel and to ensure a fully independent inquiry into the disaster.

A total of 304 bodies were recovered from the ferry, but nine remained unaccounted for when divers finally called off the dangerous search in November.

The tragedy sparked nationwide grief and outrage as it became clear that regulatory failings, official incompetence and the ship's illegal redesign were the main causes.

The official response to the disaster was widely criticised for being slow, uncoordinated and unfocused, and prompted President Park to vow a complete overhaul of national safety standards.

Following months of political bickering, the South Korean parliament passed a bill in November initiating an independent investigation into the sinking.

But relatives have accused the government of seeking to influence the probe by appointing officials to key posts in the 17-member inquiry committee.

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

The Sewol's captain was jailed in November for 36 years for gross negligence and dereliction of duty, while three other senior crew members were sentenced to jail terms of between 15 and 30 years.

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