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External explosion likely sank ship: S Korea

Last Updated: Friday, April 16, 2010 - 10:23

Seoul: An external explosion most likely sank a South Korean Navy ship that split apart three weeks ago, an investigator said on Friday, amid concerns about possible North Korea involvement in the disaster.

The 1,200-ton Cheonan split into two pieces after exploding on March 26 during a routine patrol near the tense maritime border with North Korea. Fifty-eight crew members were rescued, but 46 were missing for weeks.

There has been some suspicion but no confirmation of North Korean involvement in the sinking. The disputed western sea border has in the past been the scene of three bloody inter-Korean naval battles. South Korean officials have said they will look into all possibilities, including that the ship might have been struck by a North Korean torpedo or a mine left over from the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Koreas still technically at war.

North Korean officials have reportedly denied their country`s involvement in the blast.

The salvage operation began on Thursday, with officials retrieving 38 bodies so far. Eight other remain unaccounted for, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A team of 38 investigators, including US Navy officials, conducted a preliminary investigation of the ship`s stern after lifting it out of the water. The stern was to be moved to a naval base to investigate the cause of the explosion while the remaining two-thirds of the ship is to be salvaged next week, military officials said.

"There is a high possibility of an external explosion rather than an internal explosion," chief investigator Yoon Duk-yong told reporters on Friday. He said further analysis and time are needed to determine the exact cause of the blast, after salvaging the ship`s other wreckage and collecting debris.

He also said the explosion may have occurred near the ship or that something may have hit the ship.

To ascertain whether North Korea was involved, authorities would have to look at the shape of broken ship parts and recover splinters of a torpedo or a sea mine and determine whether the North had such weapons, said Lee Hyun-yup, a marine engineering expert at Chungnam National University in South Korea. It could take years to find the exact cause, he said.

The sinking was one of South Korea`s worst naval disasters. In 1974, a ship sank off the southeast coast in stormy weather, killing 159 sailors and coast guard personnel. In 1967, 39 sailors were killed by North Korean artillery.

South Korea has asked the US, Australia, Britain and Sweden to send experts for a joint investigation. A team of eight US investigators, led by Rear Admiral Thomas J Eccles, arrived in South Korea earlier this week, according to South Korea`s Defence Ministry.

Meanwhile, a Lynx helicopter carrying four crew crashed into the country`s southwestern waters during a patrol on Thursday night, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Navy and coast guard vessels recovered a body and parts of helicopter wreckage and were searching for the three other flight crew.

Bureau Report

First Published: Friday, April 16, 2010 - 10:23
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