South Korea looks to wrap up ferry recovery effort

SEOUL (AFP) - Recovery teams should try to wrap up their search for bodies from South Korea's ferry disaster by the weekend, Prime Minister Chung Hong Won said on Wednesday, three weeks after the ship sank with hundreds of schoolchildren on board.

With 33 bodies yet to be recovered, the moment is fast arriving when the authorities will have to make a call on stopping the underwater search in order to raise the ferry, which was carrying 476 people when it capsized on April 16.

The conditions the recovery teams are working in are extremely challenging, and the death of a diver on Tuesday is likely to fuel debate as to how long the search should continue.

The deciding factor so far has been the sensitivities of the relatives of those still unaccounted for. The coastguard has promised that the giant floating cranes to be used in the salvage operation will only be brought in once all the bodies trapped in the submerged ship have been retrieved.

But with some bodies being recovered several kilometres (miles) away from the disaster site over the past week, it is unclear just how many remain trapped and how many may never be recovered.

Speaking at a Cabinet meeting, Mr Chung said every effort should be made "to wrap up the search by May 10 to help ease the pain of the families of the missing."

Mr Chung resigned late last month amid mounting public criticism of the government in the wake of the disaster over lax safety standards and inadequate state regulation.

His resignation was accepted, but Mr Chung was asked and agreed to remain in his post until the recovery and salvage operation is completed.

The prime minister in South Korea is a largely symbolic position with little power, and Chung's resignation was widely seen as a token sacrifice to assuage public opinion.

If anything, however, the criticism of the government has grown, forcing President Park Geun Hye, whose previously high poll ratings have been battered by the ferry tragedy fallout, to make two separate apologies.

- Diver safety stepped up -

With the recovery of five more bodies since Tuesday, the confirmed death toll stood at 269, with 33 still missing.

In a daily briefing, the spokesman for the federal disaster task-force, Ko Myung Suk, said safety procedures for divers would be strengthened in the wake of Tuesday's fatality.

The 53-year-old diver, who was making his first dive at the scene, was pulled from the water unconscious and taken to hospital where he was pronounced dead.

"Divers who are newly brought in will be given better briefings on the particularities of the work," Mr Ko said.

The 6,825-tonne Sewol was sailing from the western port of Incheon to the southern resort island of Jeju when it suddenly listed sharply to one side, before capsizing and sinking.

The passengers included 325 students from the same high school, of whom around 250 are among the dead and missing.

Prosecutors have formally arrested or detained four officials from the ferry operator - Chonghaejin Marine Co - as well as the captain and 14 crew members.

They face charges related to the fact that the ferry's cargo weight was way over capacity.

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