Seoul: Parents of high school students killed in South Korea`s ferry disaster descended Friday on the presidential Blue House, holding portraits of their lost children and demanding a meeting with President Park Geun-Hye.
After they were blocked by hundreds of police, some in riot gear, dozens of the parents -- backed by scores of supporters -- staged a sit-in at a street corner, a few hundred metres (yards) from the Blue House.
By Friday evening, the number of people joining the demonstration had swelled to several hundred. Armoured vehicles with water cannon were on stand-by nearby.
The parents sat clutching framed photos of their children, who perished when the Sewol ferry sank with the loss of around 300 lives last month.
"We`re calling for a meeting with the president to press our demands," a spokesman for the families, Kim Byeong-Kwon, told AFP.
"We will stay here until we secure a meeting with the president," he said.
The victims` relatives have been extremely critical of nearly every aspect of the government`s handling of the disaster.
They want explanations for perceived delays in the initial rescue effort, and are calling for those they believe responsible to be punished.
"In particular, we want a thorough investigation into reasons why it took more than three days before the first bodies were pulled out," said Kim Hyeon-Dong, whose daughter`s body was retrieved six days after the ship sank.The families also want more resources deployed at the recovery site to speed up the search for the 30 passengers still unaccounted for.
Supporters of the group pasted small, yellow paper boats on the sides of police vehicles with handwritten messages reading "I`m so sorry, children", "Remember the Sewol" and "Shame on South Korea".
A few representatives were eventually allowed into the Blue House for talks with some of Park`s senior advisers who, they later said, had promised to help arrange a meeting with the president.
Park has met the victims` families on several occasions, and been subjected to some angry heckling.
Her previously high popularity ratings have taken a dive in the wake of the disaster, despite two public apologies.
The demonstration began late Thursday night as a protest outside KBS-TV after comments by the state-funded broadcaster that the death toll from the Sewol was far lower than the number of those killed every year on South Korea`s roads.
Shortly before dawn, the parents decided to march to the Blue House to demand a meeting with Park.
The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it sank on April 16 after listing sharply to one side and then rolling over.
Of those on board, 325 were children from a high school on an organised trip to the southern resort island of Jeju.
Initial investigations suggest the ferry was carrying up to three times its safe cargo capacity.
Many parents believe some children may have survived for hours or even days inside airpockets in the capsized ferry, but died because rescuers took too long to access the submerged vessel.
"Her body wasn`t decomposed at all," Kim Hyeon-Dong said of his daughter.
"I believe she must have stayed alive for quite a long time after the boat rolled over.
"What we are especially angry about is the fact that many of our children would have made it if help had come earlier," he said.
The confirmed death toll stood at 273 on Friday, with 31 still unaccounted for, after four more bodies were retrieved from the sunken ship overnight.