SEOUL (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Chinese embassy in Seoul confirmed on Thursday that two Chinese citizens were on board a South Korean passenger ship which capsized in waters off South Korea's south-west coast on Wednesday.
The two Chinese nationals, one male and the other female, were aboard the ill-fated ship from the western port city of Incheon to the southern resort island of Jeju, an official with the Chinese embassy said.
Separately, a Xinhua correspondent learned later in the day that a teenager of Chinese origin was also among the victims still missing a day after the deadly maritime accident.
Parents of the high school student confirmed the news, but declined to say whether she has received South Korean citizenship.
The passengers aboard the ship included 325 students and 15 teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, a Seoul suburb, which, according to the Chinese embassy, is home to many Chinese people.
Meanwhile, the relatives of the two confirmed Chinese passengers claimed to have seen them get aboard the ship with a vehicle in security camera footage.
According to local regulations, passengers with a vehicle could board the ship by only registering the plate number, instead of giving their personal information, which might explain why South Korean authorities had failed to find the information of the two Chinese passengers.
Search operations resumed in full scale on Thursday for hundreds of passengers missing in what is believed to be one of the country's deadliest offshore accidents.
Combing the submerged ship is the top priority in the search, though diving operations have been hampered by poor underwater visibility and strong currents at the scene. A total of 555 Navy, Coast Guard and other divers have been mobilised for the operations, officials said.
The water is very murky as currents stir up mud lying at the bottom of the sea, officials said.
"We carried out underwater searches five times from midnight until early in the morning, but strong currents and the murky water pose tremendous obstacles," said Mr Kang Byung Kyu, minister for security and public administration, during a press briefing. "We will do our best."
Also mobilised to scour the area are 169 boats and 29 aircraft, Mr Kang said. Two salvage cranes are also on their way to the scene to raise the sunken vessel, with one of them expected to arrive on Friday morning and the other in the evening, the minister said.
The ferry was on its way to the southern resort island of Jeju from the port of Incheon, west of Seoul, when it sent a distress signal at 8.58am local time on Wednesday. The circumstance leading to calling for help was not yet known, though survivors said they heard a bang before the vessel started tilting over.
Experts say the vessel could have hit an underwater rock.
The Coast Guard has been questioning the ship's captain and other crew members to determine what went wrong. Coast Guard officials said they found that the ill-fated ship deviated from a government-recommended route.
The ship also made a sharp turn in direction although it is supposed to make a gradual turn, Coast Guard officials said. The loud bang before the sinking could be from cargo shifting from the turn, experts said.
A total of 325 passengers were students from a high school in Ansan, just south of Seoul. They were on a school trip to Jeju and about 200 of the students remain unaccounted for.
The government has come under strong fire over its handling of the disaster. It has even been unable to figure out exactly how many people were aboard the ship, and it revised the figure, as well as the numbers of those rescued and missing, many times.
Survivors also blamed the ship's crew, saying they were repeatedly told to stay put where they were, even when the ship began tilting. Had they been told to evacuate earlier, more people would have survived the disaster, they said.
Reports say the ship's captain was one of the first to leave the vessel.
Police, meanwhile, are trying to check the authenticity of an alleged text message sent to one of the missing students' family members claiming that several people have survived in an air pocket of the capsized ferry, officers said.
The police, however, said they are not ruling out the possibility that the message could have been sent by someone as a prank.
The ship, which plies between Incheon and Jeju twice a week, was built in Japan in 1994, is 146 metres long and 22 metres wide, and has the maximum capacity of carrying 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers at the same time.
The United States has expressed its condolences to the families of those killed.
"We extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones of those who lost their lives on board the South Korea ferry, the Sewol," Ms Marie Harf, the State Department's deputy spokeswoman, said at a daily press briefing. She described the incident as a "terrible tragedy."
The United States is ready to provide any assistance needed in the ongoing search-and-rescue efforts, she said.
On Wednesday, the US military send an amphibious assault ship equipped with two helicopters to the scene to help with the search and rescue operations. The ship was on its routine patrol mission in the western sea.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon also expressed condolences and sympathy for the victims.