Seoul: South Korea started work on Sunday to salvage a Navy ship that sank following a mysterious explosion near the sea border with North Korea, hours after ending its underwater hunt for dozens of sailors on board, officials said.
Families of the sailors asked the military to suspend the operation for fear of additional casualties among divers as chances of finding survivors grew increasingly unlikely after Saturday`s discovery of one of the 46 sailors` bodies.
Officials said they stopped the underwater search out of respect for the families` request and will work to recover the 1,200-ton Cheonan.
Civilian ship-recovery companies were commissioned to be in charge of the salvage work while military ships will continue searching the surface of the ocean to find any floating debris and bodies, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A large civilian recovery crane has already been near the site of sinking while another crane was on its way to the area, a navy officer said on condition of anonymity citing department policy. A team of civilian divers planned to plunge underwater on Sunday and Monday to study how to tie the wreckage with chains, he added.
The official said it was expected to take at least 15 days to lift up the wreckage of the ship, which exploded on March 26 and sank a few hours later during a routine patrol. Fifty-eight crew members, including the captain, were rescued soon after.
No cause has been determined for the blast and, despite some speculation, there has been no confirmation of North Korean involvement in the sinking, which occurred near the countries` disputed western sea border with North Korea — a scene of three bloody inter-Korean naval battles.
Defence Minister Kim Tae-young has said a floating mine dispatched from North Korea was one possible explanation. A mine left over from the 1950-53 Korean War may also have struck the ship, he said.
Other officials say the cause can only be determined after the ship is recovered.
On Saturday, divers discovered the body of a senior chief petty officer in the ship`s rear area, the first of the missing sailors to be found.
One military diver died last week after falling into unconsciousness during a rescue operation. A South Korean fishing boat that participated in the search operation went into missing Friday, killing two people and leaving seven others missing.
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.